Theology in Outline: What Do I Believe?

Theology is confusing enough, much more so when you attempt to summarize it all in a single essay! Nevertheless, such was my assignment in seminary in 2015. Here are the results.


“At the centre of Christian faith is the history of Christ. At the centre of the history of Christ is his passion and his death on the cross.” ~ Jürgen Moltmann[1]

Theology in Outline: A[n Attempted] Summary of the Christian Faith

We believe that, during the prefecture of Pontius Pilate, God died on a Roman cross.[2] We also believe that, the third day thereafter, Jesus of Nazareth – the same person who had been crucified – rose again from the dead.

How can these things be?

How can the immortal, transcendent, omnipotent One come to a weak, immanent end?

How can a dead human leave his grave, living?

At this point, we face a crucial choice between:

  1. the posited “God” of metaphysical theism and
  2. the revealed God of the Christian faith.[3]

Should we choose the former, our Christ, canon, and confession are irreducibly docetic – the true “God” is aloof, and merely play-acting, at best.

Yet, should we choose the latter, God is irreducibly, ineluctably Triune – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. We believe, we trust that the Triune God is who God has revealed Godself to be. Continue reading “Theology in Outline: What Do I Believe?”

What does it mean to be human?

What Does It Mean to Be Human?

A clue to the answer lies in the asking of the question, for this act presupposes both a [human] subject and object in a dialectic of self-transcendence.

As Robert Jenson notes, “in asking this question, we somehow take up a vantage outside ourselves to make ourselves our own objects, get beyond ourselves to look back at ourselves.”1 The mystery of human existence is “that I am the subject of the object I am and the object of the subject I am.”2

But what do I see when I look at myself? At others? At God?

On our own, this self-transcendence leaves us humans at the mercy of our own divided desires – searching for definition. But with God, we receive our true humanity in the midst of divine discourse – finding significance in God’s recognition that we are true human beings. The failures of the former approach highlight the successes of the latter.

DIVIDED DESIRES

What Do I See When I Look at Myself?

One driven by desire.

Based upon human behavior, Sigmund Freud rightly notes that the primary human desire is for happiness, which involves the avoidance of the pain and the pursuit of pleasure.3

However, I quickly discover that my own body, the external world, and human relationships oppose my pleasure-drive.4 These oppositions help me to distinguish myself from that which is not me. For example, I am not the ground which hurts when I fall upon it. I am not my parents who fail to provide me with food the moment I desire it. I am not the external frustration and pain which I encounter. I am the one with the frustrated desires.

Despite the necessity of unfulfilled desires for human development in Freud’s framework, he recognized the unavoidable tensions which human beings experience as the result of two competing drives: Eros and Death.5

The former, Eros, is synonymous with libido, the desire for objects for the sake of preservation; while the latter, Death, leads to guilt when internalized, and aggression towards others.6

What Do I See When I Look at Others?

Ones who both inform and frustrate my desires.

Now, on one hand, this is necessary and beneficial for development. As a child, I learn to desire to eat and speak like my parents.

However, as Rene Girard observes, when these imitative or mimetic desires are frustrated, they lead to rivalries.7 When I desire something my neighbor possesses, and my neighbor prevents me from obtaining it, my desire for the object increases. Yet so does my neighbor’s desire, which produces tension between us.

Therefore, imitation distinguishes human desires from animal instincts for natural needs, yet simultaneously causes the conflicts of human existence. Mimetic desire “is responsible for the best and the worst in us, for what lowers us below the animal level as well as what elevates us above it.”8

Without a goal or telos to distinguish between right and wrong desires, I can only take cues from my neighbor and hope for a relative peace. Soon, “choice itself becomes the only thing that is inherently good,” as “all desires, good and bad, melt into the one overriding imperative to consume.”9

When desire is turned in on itself, the pursuit of things (and not even the things themselves!) becomes my temporary respite from the restlessness of my existence. Since I cannot define myself, I go shopping instead.10 And yet, I cannot shop forever.

What Do I See When I Look at God?

If human self-transcendence in search of definition is an enclosed circle, the most I will ever see is a personified, projected “god” who is the opposite of my weaknesses and the abstracted absolute of my strengths.

Why even bother positing such a “God”? Because I live my life as a narrative awaiting a conclusion – death – which, although it grants meaning to the plot, prevents me, its main actor, from ascertaining its final significance!

As Jenson dryly observes, “if the conclusion of our play, hidden as we play our temporal stories in the impenetrable future of death, is nevertheless already enacted, then it can only be enacted in something like the mind of an author, standing above the play and holding what in the play are past and future in a superior present, in the ‘all-at-once-now’ of eternity.”11

And so I trade places with the indefinable God of past theological formulations, defining him against the contours of my own mysterious existence, which I expect him to justify and underwrite.12 Yet if I worship a mere projection, I am left on my own.

What Does It Mean to Be Human?

To be at the mercy of our own divided, conflicted, and frustrated desires.

Karl Barth best describes the failures of self-definition:

“[T]he enterprise of setting up the ‘No-God’ (to justify our existence) is avenged by its success. […] Our conduct becomes governed precisely by what we desire. By a strict inevitability we reach the goal we have set before us. […] And now there is no higher power to protect [humans] from what they have set on high.”13

My idols (whether myself, my neighbor, or my “God”) exhaust and finally crush me. The attempt to establish my own identity isolates me from myself, whom I do not know; my neighbor, whom I love to hate; my “God,” whom I project; and God, whom I ignore.

DIVINE DISCOURSE

Who am I? What do I see when I look at God?

To solve the enigma of my own existence, I must reverse the latter question and expand the former.

What Does God See When He Looks at Me?

As Barth rightly inveighs, God “is not the personified but the personifying person – the person on the basis of whose prior existence alone we can speak (hypothetically) of other persons different from Him.”14 Therefore, humans “ought not to be independently what they are in dependence upon God.”15

And because of this, I cannot define myself on my own, but merely describe the characteristics and tensions of my life. My self-transcendence has value only when it transcends the self in the context of a divine discourse.

As Eberhard Jüngel claims, “it is only as the human ‘I’ is addressed in such a way that it is simultaneously claimed by something outside itself, that one is really speaking about the human ‘I’ as such.”16

I am told who I am by God, and thereby enabled to exist in proper relationship to God, to others, and to myself – the very relations that I jeopardize in self-definition.17

Barth rightly insists that true humanity – true human personality – is only found in one place: the encounter between God and humanity. Therefore, on his own, “man is not a person, but becomes one on the basis that he is loved by God and can love God in return.”18

In Jenson’s terms, humans are unique in that God relates to us as “his conversational counterpart,”19 and this divine address to us “is the Son, who is the human person Jesus of Nazareth.”20

Therefore, as Barth puts it, “the ontological determination of humanity is grounded in the fact that one man among all others is the man Jesus.”21 To be human is to be with God in the person of Christ.22

God Sets Us Free, for Himself and for Others

If true, the grounding of humanity in divine discourse is a profound liberation, for “our acts [and our desires] cannot determine our being. Only the one who determines being and non-being determines our being.”23

And the Incarnation decisively reassures us that God recognizes us as human beings. Indeed, “the truly human person is the person who is definitively recognized by God, and in that way one who cannot be discredited by anything or anyone, not even by him- or herself.”24

Once I see that the real God has, in Christ, broken through the veneer of my projected “God” to secure my humanity, I no longer have to drive myself mad trying to secure my humanity. I am freed to worship the true God, enabled to respond to his address in prayer and worship.25

I am also liberated to relate to my neighbor, not in conflict as a model/rival, but in love as a fellow human.

This is the ineluctable result of God’s incarnational address in Jesus Christ, for “to receive myself from God and be directed toward him is therefore to receive myself from and be directed toward a fellow human. And it is to receive myself from and be directed toward a human person who precisely to be himself brings others with him.”26

Because he provides the standard by which human desires are evaluated, Christ, who exists completely for God and for others, calls and enables me to reorient my desires toward human flourishing, “the end of human life, which is participation in the life of God.”27

I can now recognize the dignity of each fellow human, not as a means to my distorted ends, but as one whom God loves, one for whom Christ died.

As Martin Luther concluded:

“as Christians we do not live in ourselves but in Christ and the neighbor. […] As Christians, we live in Christ through faith and in the neighbor through love. Through faith we are caught up beyond ourselves into God. Likewise, through love we descend beneath ourselves through love to serve our neighbor.”28

This is self-transcendence as it was meant to be. Divine discourse encompasses God, the self, and the other, grounding both anthropology and ethics.

(For an overview of what I believe, check out my essay: “Theology in Outline.”)

CONCLUSION

What does it mean to be human? On my own, I am unable to answer the question.

In my efforts to secure my own existence, I can only describe my incoherent estate at the mercy of my divided and frustrated desires. I am a mystery to myself, I love to hate my neighbor, and I project a “God” to comfort myself in light of death.

Yet with God, I am enabled to receive my humanity in the midst of divine discourse, and to respond to his address to me in Christ through prayer, worship, and love of neighbor.


NOTES:

1 Robert W. Jenson, Systematic Theology Volume 2: The Works of God (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1999), 64.

2 Jenson, Systematic Theology Volume 2, 64.

3 Sigmund Freud, Civilization and its Discontents, trans. Joan Riviere (Mansfield Centre, CT: Martino Publishing, 2010), 27.

4 Freud, 28.

5 Freud, 103.

6 Freud, 94-103.

7 René Girard, I See Satan Fall Like Lightning, trans. James G. Williams (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2001), 8-13.

8 Girard, 16.

9 William T. Cavanaugh, Being Consumed: Economics and Christian Desire (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2008), 13.

10 Cavanaugh, 34-5.

11 Robert W. Jenson, A Religion Against Itself (Richmond, VA: John Knox, 1967), 18.

12 Eberhard Jüngel, “On Becoming Truly Human,” in Theological Essays II, ed. J.B. Webster, trans. Arnold Neufeld-Fast and J.B. Webster (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1995), 223.

13 Karl Barth, The Epistle to the Romans, trans. Edwyn C. Hoskyns, 6th ed. (London: Oxford University Press, 1933), 51.

14 Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1936-77; repr., Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2010), II/1: 285. Henceforth all references to the Dogmatics will be in the following form: “CD I/1, 1.”

15 Barth, Romans, 247.

16 Jüngel, 220.

17 Jüngel, 221.

18 CD II/1, 284.

19 Jenson, Systematic Theology Volume 2, 95.

20 Jenson, Systematic Theology Volume 2, 73.

21 CD III/2, 132.

22 CD III/2, 135.

23 Jüngel, 236.

24 Jüngel, 239.

25 Jenson, Systematic Theology Volume 2, 58-9.

26 Jenson, Systematic Theology Volume 2, 73.

27 Cavanaugh, viii.

28 Martin Luther, “The Freedom of a Christian,” in Martin Luther’s Basic Theological Writings, eds. Timothy F. Lull and William R. Russell, 3 rd. ed. (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 2012), 423.

 

Disunity in the Church? Absurd!

Presented at Southeast ETS 2015.

DISUNITY AS ECCLESIOLOGICAL IMPOSSIBILITY:A BARTHIAN ANALOGY

Joshua P. Steele

INTRODUCTION

Just as sin is ontological impossibility, disunity is ecclesiological impossibility. The tension between the undeniable reality of sin and Karl Barth’s theological definition of sin as an impossible possibility parallels the tension between the obvious reality of a fractured church1 and the theological definition of the church as the one body of the one Christ. Two excerpts from the Barthian corpus legitimize this connection. First, in his prepared remarks to the 1937 Second World Conference on Faith and Order in Edinburgh, Karl Barth maintained that

we have no right to explain the multiplicity of the churches at all. We have to deal with it as we deal with sin, our own and others’, to recognize it as a fact, to understand it as the impossible thing which has intruded itself, as guilt which we must take upon ourselves, without the power to liberate ourselves from it. We must not allow ourselves to acquiesce in its reality; rather we must pray that it be forgiven and removed, and be ready to do whatever God’s will and command may enjoin in respect of it.2

 

Second, almost two decades later, Barth described as “impossible” that which he had earlier declared “unthinkable”3 – that certain Christian communities should “stand in relation to other groups of equally Christian communities in an attitude more or less of exclusion,” by claiming that “their confession and preaching and theology are mutually contradictory” (CD IV/1, 676).4 It is furthermore impossible “that the adherents of the one should be able to work together with those of the other in every possible secular cause, but not to pray together, not to preach and hear the Word of God together, not to keep the Lord’s Supper together” (CD IV/1, 676). Barth insists that, “in view of the being of the community as the body of Christ [, the disunity of the church] is – ontologically, we can say – quite impossible; it is possible only as sin is possible” (CD IV/1, 677; emphasis added).

In order to describe in Barthian terms what it means for church disunity to be possible only as sin is possible, the purpose of this paper is to correlate Barth’s anthropological concept of sin as ontological impossibility with its parallel ecclesiological concept: disunity as ecclesiological impossibility. I will then conclude by locating this discussion within Barth’s own ecumenical vision – with an eye toward informing and motivating further ecumenical efforts.

(For a[n attempted] summary of the Christian faith, see my essay: “Theology in Outline: What do I Believe?“)

SIN AS ONTOLOGICAL IMPOSSIBILITY

In considering human sin, we must begin with what it means to be human. Although various attempts have been made to define humanity in the spheres of natural science, idealist ethics, existentialist philosophy, and theistic anthropology, Barth claims that these are merely descriptions of the phenomena, and not the essence, of humanity (CD III/2, 71-132).

Against these provisional anthropologies, Barth insists that true humanity – true human personality – is only found in one place, the encounter between God and man, and not in the reaches or intricacies of human emotion, intellect, or will. Therefore, on his own, “man is not a person, but becomes one on the basis that he is loved by God and can love God in return” (CD II/1, 284). This is because God “is not the personified but the personifying person – the person on the basis of whose prior existence alone we can speak (hypothetically) of other persons different from Him” (CD II/1, 285). Most importantly, “the One, the person, whom we really know as a human person, is the person of Jesus Christ, and even this is in fact the person of God the Son, in which humanity, without being or having itself a person, is caught up into fellowship with the personality of God” (CD II/1, 286). Christology determines anthropology, and not the other way around (CD I/1, 131).

Christological Anthropology

Although Barth grounds the definition of humanity in Christology, he is always careful to preserve a qualitative distinction between Christ’s humanity and humanity in general:

Christology is not anthropology. We cannot expect, therefore, to find directly in others the humanity of Jesus, and therefore His fellow-humanity, His being for man, and therefore that final and supreme determination, the image of God. Jesus is man for His fellows, and therefore the image of God, in a way which others cannot even approach, just as they cannot be for God in the sense that He is. He alone is the Son of God, and therefore His humanity alone can be described as the being of an I which is wholly from and to the fellow-human Thou, and therefore a genuine I. (CD III/2, 222)

 

Instead of framing this distinction between Christ and other humans in terms of a vague moral perfection, Barth portrays Christ as distinctly more human than humans in general – existing both for God and for other humans in a way which is unparalleled. Christ’s existence for other humans is “the direct correlative of His being for God,” and this reveals a correspondence between the existence and love of God ad intra – between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – and the existence and love of God ad extrato humanity (CD III/2, 220).

Humanity only exists within this Christological correspondence, this analogia relationis (CD III/2, 218-20, 225-6). Specifically, Barth grounds the humanity of individual humans in the notion of a shared sphere with Christ: “the ontological determination of humanity is grounded in the fact that one man among all others is the man Jesus” (CD III/2, 132). Therefore, “to be a man is to be with God,” for no matter what else each individual is, “he is on the basis of the fact that he is with Jesus and therefore with God” (CD III/2, 135). Because the incarnation is the fullest expression of the Creator’s summons to the creature into relationship, it is the ground of the human creature’s being and personality – distinguishing humanity from the other non-human spheres which Christ did not inhabit (CD III/2, 137).

Sin is the Impossible Possibility

However, the incarnation is also the source of sin’s absurdity. Because humanity “is not without God, but with God,” true “Godlessness, is not, therefore, a possibility, but an ontological impossibility for man” (CD III/2, 136). When it comes to sin, Barth simultaneously removes it from the definition of what it means to be human, and emphasizes its absurdity as part of human existence – for, although sin undeniably exists, “our being does not include but excludes sin. To be in sin, in godlessness, is a mode of being contrary to our humanity” (CD III/2, 136).

Nevertheless, to make some provisional sense of sin’s existence, Barth claims that the distinction between Creator and creation necessarily entails the possibility of creaturely conflict with God. As opposed to the inherent impossibility of a conflict between God and himself ad intra ,5 “it is a mark of created being as distinct from divine that in it conflict with God and therefore mortal conflict with itself is not ruled out, but is a definite possibility even if it is only the impossible possibility, the possibility of self-annulment and therefore its own destruction” (CD II/1, 503). Positively, this reinforces the creature’s identity as simply that: a creature, owing its existence to God. In fact, “creature freed from the possibility of falling away would not really be living as a creature. It could only be a second God – and as no second God exists, it could only be God Himself” (CD II/1, 503). This distinction does not necessitate actual sin, however, for “sin is when the creature avails itself of this impossible possibility in opposition to God and to the meaning of its own existence” (CD II/1, 503; emphasis added). And, given the Christological and theological basis of human existence, it makes no sense for a human to actualize this possibility, for “if he denies God, he denies himself” and “chooses his own impossibility” (CD III/2, 136). In Barth’s evaluation, this one absurd decision underlies all actions which are usually considered sins, for “every offence in which godlessness can express itself, e.g., unbelief and idolatry, doubt and indifference to God, is as such, both in its theoretical and practical forms, and offence with which man burdens, obscures, and corrupts himself” (CD III/2, 136).

For Barth, therefore, sin is not merely moral – it is both ontological and incomprehensible: the inherent contradiction of a nothingness which opposes God as the very ground of all existence and reality (CD II/1, 532; III/3, 351). The value of this definition is its absurdity. Responding to the challenge (from Berkouwer) that defining sin as “nothingness,” an “impossible possibility,” or an “ontological impossibility” seems “to suggest or imply a denial of the reality of evil,” Barth maintains that “it is of a piece with the nature of evil that if we could explain how it may have reality it would not be evil. Nor are we really thinking of evil if we think we can explain this” (CD IV/3, 177). His subsequent clarification is especially instructive for this discussion:

When I speak of nothingness, I cannot mean that evil is nothing, that it does not exist, or that it has no reality. I mean that it exists only in the negativity proper to it in its relationship to God and decisively in God’s relationship of repudiation to it. It does not exist as God does, nor as His creatures, amongst which it is not to be numbered. It has no basis for its being. It has no right to the existence which to our sorrow we cannot deny to it. Its existence, significance and reality are not distinguished by any value nor positive strength. The nature underlying its existence and activity is perversion. Its right to be and to express itself is simply that of wrong. In this sense it is nothingness. (CD IV/3, 178)

 

Similarly, the phrase “impossible possibility” is designed to reflect “the absurd possibility of the absurd,” and “ontological impossibility” to state that “the nature of evil as the negation negated by God disqualifies its being, and therefore its undeniable existence, as impossible, meaningless, illegitimate, valueless and without foundation” (CD IV/3, 178). Easily understood definitions of evil are perhaps evil themselves, obfuscating sin’s inherent incomprehensibility.

Given the definition of humanity and the absurdity of sin, there is a tension between humanity’s Christological being/essence and its sinful act/form. As Barth puts it, “perhaps the fundamental mistake in all erroneous thinking of man about himself is that he tries to equate himself with God and therefore to proceed on the assumption that he can regard himself as the presupposition of his own being” (CD III/2, 151). However, if there is one presupposition allowed in Barth’s epistemological non-foundationalism, it is the anthropological presupposition of God and his Word as the ground of human being – divine election as the frontier beyond which we cannot look for a human being “not yet summoned” (CD III/2, 151). Just as there is no God behind God, there is no humanity beyond the divine summons, beyond existence in the same sphere inhabited by Christ. It is therefore unthinkable that humanity should try to be the source of its own existence, and yet this is precisely that which occurs.

For Barth, this absurdity takes on the character of improper judgment: “all sin has its being and origin in the fact that man wants to be his own judge” (CD IV/1, 220). Although “not all men commit all sins,” everyone commits “this sin which is the essence and root of all other sins” (CD IV/1, 220). Self-justification and the damnation of the others characterize sin as “the arrogance in which man wants to be his own and his neighbour’s judge,” wanting “to be able and competent to pronounce ourselves free and righteous and others more or less guilty” (CD IV/1, 231). Sinful humanity tries to ground its own existence by carving-out its own improper position as judge.

Atonement’s Intensification of Sin’s Absurdity

Yet sin becomes an even further absurdity in light of the atonement. In fact, the tension between humanity’s Christological essence and its sinful form is a driving force in the doctrine of reconciliation, for “the incompatibility of the existence of Jesus Christ with us and us with Him, the impossibility of the co-existence of His divine-human actuality and action and our sinfully human being and activity” must be addressed before we can rest assured “that Jesus Christ belongs to us and we belong to Him, that His cause is our cause and our cause is His” (CD IV/1, 348). As an answer to this predicament, “the event of redemption in Jesus Christ not only compromises this position [of improper human judgment], but destroys it” (CD IV/1, 232).

This displacement of humanity by Christ is the source of both its abasement and liberation, the former because, although self-justification always results in a verdict of my own innocence, “He who has acted there as Judge will also judge me, and He and not I will judge others” (CD IV/1, 233). However, it is also the source of freedom from the wearisome and “intolerable nuisance to have to be convincing ourselves that we are innocent, we are in the right” (CD IV/1, 233). With relevance to our subsequent ecclesiological discussion, Barth adds that it is similarly

an affliction always to have to make it clear to ourselves so that we can cling to it that others are in one way or another in the wrong, and to have to rack our brains how we can make it clear to them, and either bring them to an amendment of their ways or give them up as hopeless, withdrawing from them or fighting against them as the enemies of all that is good and true and beautiful. (CD IV/1, 233-4)

 

Christ liberates us from the tiresome task we were never meant to complete.

Furthermore, in taking our improper place as judge, he also takes away from us the just sentence we merited by taking up that position in the first place. Christ “takes from us our own evil case, taking our place and burdening himself with it,” and “it [therefore] ceases to be our sin” (CD IV/1, 236). Due to this exchange, he “is the unrighteous amongst those who can no longer be so because He was and is for them” (CD IV/1, 237), because he has delivered “sinful man and sin in His own person to the non-being which was properly theirs” (CD IV/1, 253). Christ destroys human faithlessness by taking it to its absurd conclusion: annihilation.

Because of this, humans “have no other ground to do evil now that the ground has been cut out from under our feet” (CD IV/1, 243). Considering Christ’s work both for us and in us, Barth maintains that “unfaithfulness to God is a disallowed possibility which can no longer be actualised. It is seen to be the wholly impossible possibility on which we can no longer count, which we see to be eliminated and taken from us by God’s omnipotent contradiction set up in us” (CD IV/4, 22). In light of the doctrine of reconciliation, repentance from sin is the only viable human response. Only by ignoring Christ and his accomplished atonement, only by denying the source of our own existence can we presume to have the freedom to sin, to reject God, and to be our own judges.

DISUNITY AS ECCLESIOLOGICAL IMPOSSIBILITY

Humanity’s Christological definition results in sin as an absurdity which is intensified by the atonement. The church’s Christological definition similarly results in disunity as an absurdity which is intensified by the atonement. As we began with what it means to be human, so we begin with what it means to be the church.

Just as Barth resists an anthropology that is based upon the mere phenomena of humanity, he resists an ecclesiology that is based upon the mere phenomena of the church. Although the church is “a phenomenon of world history which can be grasped in historical and psychological and sociological terms like any other” (CD IV/1, 652), what the church actually is, “the character, the truth of its existence in time and space, is not a matter of a general but a very special visibility” (CD IV/1, 654). And just as grasping the Christological essence of humanity allows for a true appreciation of humanity’s historical form,6 understanding the Christological essence of the church allows the community to “act confidently on the level of its phenomenal being” (CD IV/1, 660). This includes ecumenical pursuits.

Christological Ecclesiology

For Barth, Christology determines both anthropology and ecclesiology, and there is therefore no “abandonment of the sphere of the [Apostles’] creed” when the transition is made from the second to the third article.7 He offers a conceptual map at this juncture:

The Christology is like a vertical line meeting a horizontal. The doctrine of the sin of man is the horizontal line as such. The doctrine of justification is the intersection of the horizontal line by the vertical. The remaining doctrine, that of the Church and of faith, is again the horizontal line, but this time seen as intersected by the vertical. The vertical line is the atoning work of God in Jesus Christ. The horizontal is the object of that work; man and humanity. (CD IV/1, 643)

 

There is therefore a Chalcedonian pattern, 8 not only to Christ’s person, but also to his work. This unavoidably includes the Holy Spirit’s work, awakening and forming the church, which is itself the subjective realization of the eternal election of Jesus Christ (CD IV/1, 667).9 In Barth’s terms: “the one reality of the atonement has both an objective and a subjective side in so far as – we cannot separate but we must not confuse the two – it is both a divine act and offer and also an active human participation in it” (CD IV/1, 643; emphasis added).

For this reason, “the history which we consider when we speak of the Christian community and Christian faith is enclosed and exemplified in the history of Jesus Christ” (CD IV/1, 644). Barth takes seriously the New Testament language of the church as Christ’s “body,” and claims that “the community is the earthly-historical form of existence of Jesus Christ himself” (CD IV/1, 661). As Christ is the head of his body, the church, he is the ground of its particular existence. Just as the incarnation grounds human existence, it determines ecclesiological existence. And because Christology and ecclesiology are inseparably intertwined, the Chalcedonian pattern which unites the church with the person of Christ also applies to the relationship between the church’s being and its act – between its invisible essence and its visible form.

Disunity is the Impossible Possibility

This union, however, parallels the aforementioned tension between humanity’s essence and its form, given its Christological definition and the absurdity of sin. As Bender notes, “Barth’s dialectical understanding of the church as both an invisible and visible reality, an event of the Holy Spirit and a historical entity, leads naturally to his dialectical understanding of the marks of the church: the church as one, holy, catholic, and apostolic.”10 Within the context of the first mark, there is a tension between the church’s being/essence as one, and its act/form as many.

Credo unam ecclesiam(I believe one church) entails that there is “only one Church. This means that it belongs to the being of the community to be a unity in the plurality of its members, i.e., of the individual believers assembled in it, and to be a simple unity, not having a second or third unity of the same kind side by side with it” (CD IV/1, 668). This follows not just a Christological pattern, but a Trinitarian one as well, for

In all the riches of His divine being the God who reconciled the world with Himself in Jesus Christ is One. Jesus Christ, elected the Head of all men and as such their Representative who includes them all in Himself in His risen and crucified body is One. The Holy Spirit in the fulness and diversity of His gifts is One. In the same way His community as the gathering of the men who know and confess Him can only be one. (CD IV/1, 668)

 

This is the source of the church’s unity, in the midst of legitimate plurality, between the visible and invisible church and between the ecclesia militans and the ecclesia triumphans (CD IV/1, 669).11 The only other legitimate church plurality is the existence of “geographically separated and therefore different congregations.” (CD IV/1, 671). If the church is to exist “in essential accordance with its commission it has to take place in many localities,” then this necessarily entails a differentiation which corresponds to “its environment and history and language and customs and ways of life and thought as conditioned by the different localities, and also to its personal composition” (CD IV/1, 671). Because it is grounded in God’s Triune unity, the church’s unity does not necessitate homogeneity, and Barth grants that each local congregation should exist within the particularities of its own context.

However, this cannot entail any sort of basic or essential difference between one local congregation and another, for “each in its own place can only be the one community beside which there are no others. Each in and for itself and with its local characteristics can only be the whole, as others are in their own locality” (CD IV/1, 672). No other legitimate plurality within the church exists, for “any other plurality means the co-existence of Churches which are genuinely divided” – churches that, at best will kindly “tolerate one another as believing differently, and at worst they will fight against one another, mutually excluding each other with some definiteness and force” (CD IV/1, 675).

And yet this is exactly the scandalous reality of the church. Although there are myriad reasons for ecclesiological divisions throughout the ages, Barth’s distillation of myriad human sins to improper judgment as “the essence and root of all other sins ” helps to make sense of the scandal of the fragmented church. Just as humans demonstrate the sinful tension between their essence and form by improperly justifying themselves and damning others, the church demonstrates the sinful tension between its unified being and its divided act when individual Christian communities justify their own existence over against the existence of other Christian communities. Because this is the case, Barth is even willing to claim that the church’s formal division has essential implications: “in its visible and also in its invisible being, in its form and also in its essence, the one community of Jesus Christ is not one” (CD IV/1, 679). While it is expected that every Christian community would claim an individual encounter with its Lord which justifies its own existence, this can quickly become a perverse insistence that the “Yes” of Christ has been exclusively spoken to them. This “claim to be identical with the one Church in contrast to the others, and in this sense to be the only Church” entails a delegitimation, whether implicit or explicit, of every other community’s claim to stand under the “Yes” of Christ (CD IV/1, 683-4). The local congregation, instead of existing in harmony with and as a manifestation of the one church, becomes a ghetto by restricting the cosmic boundaries of Christ’s church to its own four walls.

While there may be legitimate human explanations for such divisions, there are no acceptable theological ones, Barth claims, for a “plurality of Churches in this sense means a plurality of lords, a plurality of spirits, a plurality of gods” – a practical denial of the church’s theoretical confession of the singular unity of the Triune God (CD IV/1, 675). Just as it is absurd for humans to oppose God as the very ground of their existence, it is equally absurd for the church to divide in denial of the unity of God.

Atonement’s Intensification of Disunity’s Absurdity

Just as the atonement intensifies the anthropological absurdity of sin, it intensifies the ecclesiological absurdity of disunity. As Barth puts it, the previously-described exclusive claim of a Christian community to be the only church “has been dashed out of hand by the One who is the unity of the Church” (CD IV/1, 684). In making an end of the nothingness of human sin, Christ has also delivered up disunity to destruction, for “in Him it was all humanity in its corruption and lostness, its earthly-historical existence under the determination of the fall, which was judged and executed and destroyed, and in that way liberated for a new determination, for its being as a new humanity” (CD IV/1, 663). The unity which is necessarily implied in Barth’s Christological description of election is realized in the church. Members of the community “were one in God’s election (Eph 1:4), were and are one in the fulfilment of it on Golgotha, are one in the power of His resurrection, one in Jesus Christ…His body together in their unity and totality” (CD IV/1, 664). Most succinctly, “there is only one Christ, and therefore there is only one body of Christ” (CD IV/1, 666). Disunity in the church is therefore absurd, because it denies the definition of the church as Christ’s body, and the reality of reconciliation as Christ’s work.

CONCLUSION: TOWARD A BARTHIAN ECUMENISM

I have endeavored to demonstrate the significance of Karl Barth’s remark that disunity in the church “is only possible as sin is possible,” by showing the structural parallels between his anthropological claim that sin is ontological impossibility and the claim that disunity is ecclesiological impossibility. Yet the value of this correlation for ecumenism is not readily apparent until it is situated within Barth’s own ecumenical vision.

For Karl Barth, the Chalcedonian pattern of both Christology and ecclesiology applies when addressing the tension between the church’s essence and form.12 On one hand, the solution to ecclesiological disunity must not entail a docetic escapism which unifies the church at the expense of its earthly-historical form. No matter how frustrated ecumenists become, they must not abandon their ecclesiological traditions to create a formless Christianity whose only members are themselves. Because the church’s external divisions result from essential, inward fractures, “neither individuals nor the whole Church can overcome it by a flight to the invisible, but only by a healing of both its visible and its invisible hurt” (CD IV/1, 678). On the other hand, because “what is demanded is the unity of the Church of Jesus Christ, not the externally satisfying co-existence and co-operation of different religious societies,” Barth is suspicious of ebionitic approaches to church unity which approach the unification of the church as the unification of any other human communities, looking for the least common denominators upon which to build pragmatic associations (CD IV/1, 678).

Instead, Barth maintains that the pursuit of church unity must be an indirect pursuit – not an end in itself, but an unavoidable consequence of each Christian community sincerely pursuing the call of its Lord, and each individual doing so from a sober and humble loyalty to one’s particular confession (CD IV/1, 679).13 Barth asserts that “if only each church will take itself seriously, ‘itself and Christ within it,’ then even if there be no talk of union movements in it, even if there be no change at all in its order and its way of worship, the one Church would be in that single church a present reality and visible.”14 Because Christ, not Christians, is the ground of the church’s unity, an individual community can exhibit the unity of the church, even within a fractured ecclesiological landscape, “if in its ordinances it is zealous for Christ.”15

And yet this is the most difficult ecumenism of all, for it entails rigorous self-examination within each community, which must be willing to ask itself constantly whether it has legitimate reasons to exist as a particular, differentiated Christian community, or whether it should redefine (or abandon) its boundaries for the sake of church unity (CD IV/1, 680-1). I believe the correlation between sin as ontological impossibility and disunity as ecclesiological impossibility is necessary precisely at this point in the ecumenical equation, for each community’s self-examination and pursuit of Christ’s unifying summons will only be as rigorous as its understanding of the absurdity of church fragmentation. Just as sinful humanity denies the ground of its own existence, so also a divided and divisive church denies its identity as Christ’s body and the reality of the atonement. Unless the disunity of Christ’s body is seen as an unacceptable scandal, the schisms will remain, and each community’s confession, “credo unam ecclesiam,” will mean nothing more than “we believe ourselves.”


NOTES:
1 As Bender notes, “the referent for Barth’s term [whether ‘community’ or ‘church’] must be determined by context,” whether it refers to the local congregation, the institution, or the universal body of Christ. See Kimlyn Bender, Karl Barth’s Christological Ecclesiology (Hampshire/Burlington: Ashgate Publishing, 2005; repr. Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2013), 13. I have followed Bender’s approach in that, throughout this study, “church” is only capitalized in quotations, when Barth himself did so.
2 Karl Barth, The Church and the Churches (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1936; repr., 2005), 22-3. Emphasis added.
3 Note the similarities: “It is then unthinkable that to those multiplicities which are rooted in unity we should have to add that which tears it in pieces; unthinkable that great entire groups of communities should stand over against each other in such a way that their doctrines and confessions of faith are mutually contradictory…. that the adherents of the one should be at one with those of another in every conceivable point except that they are unable to pray together, to preach and hear God’s word together, and to join together in Holy Communion.” Barth, The Church and the Churches, 24.
4 The reference is to Vol. IV, pt. 1 of Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics. (eds. G.W. Bromiley and T.F. Torrance; trans. G.W. Bromiley; 5 vols in 14 parts; Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1936-77; repr., Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2010). All references to the Church Dogmatics appear parenthetically in the following form: “CD I/1, 1.”
5 “It is a mark of the divine nature as distinct from that of the creature that in it a conflict with Himself is not merely ruled out, but is inherently impossible. If this were not so, if there did not exist perfect, original and ultimate peace between the Father and the Son by the Holy Spirit, God would not be God. Any God in conflict with Himself is bound to be a false God” CD II/1, 503.
6 Consider Barth’s positive, yet provisional, appraisal of the phenomena-based anthropologies: “In this way and in this sense, then, a knowledge of man which is non-theological but genuine is not only possible but basically justified and necessary even from the standpoint of theological anthropology…. It cannot, of course, lead us to the knowledge of real man. But it may proceed from or presuppose a knowledge of real man” CD III/2, 200-2.
7 “It is significant that at this point, the transition from the second to the third article, the word credo is specifically mentioned. It tells us that we can know the man who belongs to Jesus Christ only in faith.” CD IV/1, 644.
8 Bender credits George Hunsinger with identifying this theme, based upon Barth’s own description of the ecumenical councils’ doctrinal decisions as “guiding lines for an understanding of [Christ’s] existence and action, not to be used, as they have been used, as stones for the construction of an abstract doctrine of His ‘person’” (CD IV/1, 127). See Bender, Christological Ecclesiology, 3.
9 As Bender helpfully notes, “there is, then, not only a direct Christological analogy between Christ and the community, but an indirect Trinitarian and pneumatological one, in that, as the Spirit binds together the Father and the Son (in the Trinity); and as the Spirit binds together the Word and flesh of Christ (in the incarnation); so also the Holy Spirit binds together Christ and the community.” Bender, Christological Ecclesiology, 205. However, in touching so lightly upon the work of the Holy Spirit in this paper, I share Barth’s exclamatory sentiment: “How gladly we would hear and know and say something more, something more precise, something more palpable concerning the way in which the work of the Holy Spirit is done!” (CD IV/1, 649). Furthermore, despite the brief mention of election, it is significant that Barth grounds the unity between Christology and ecclesiology, not in the event of Pentecost, preaching, or the sacraments, but in the election of Jesus Christ from all eternity. The church “became His body, they became its members, in the fulfillment of their eternal election in His death on the cross of Golgotha, proclaimed in His resurrection from the dead” (CD IV/1, 667).
10 Bender, Christological Ecclesiology, 181.
11 It is also the source of the unity between Israel and the Church, which Barth describes as the “two forms and aspects (CD II, 2, § 34, 1) of the one inseparable community in which Jesus Christ has His earthly-historical form of existence, by which He is attested to the whole world, by which the whole world is summoned to faith in Him.” CD IV/1, 669-70.
12 I am indebted to Bender’s helpful description of Barth’s critical use of a docetic/ebionitic framework. See Bender, Christological Ecclesiology, 7.
13 See also Barth, The Church and the Churches, 51-2.
14 Barth, The Church and the Churches, 55.
15 Barth, The Church and the Churches, 56.
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The Hope of the Holy Innocents

(PDF: The Hope of the Holy Innocents)

Today is December 28 (2014) – just the third day since Christmas – a commemoration of what is often called “The Slaughter of the Innocents,” the killing of the baby boys of Bethlehem by King Herod.

The Church’s regard for this day as a feast day is quite early, going back to at least the fifth century. In the fourth century, Chromatius described these babies as the first martyrs of Christ – the first counted worthy to die on Christ’s behalf. Around the same time, St. Augustine claimed that these nameless victims, “whom Herod’s cruelty tore as sucklings from their mothers’ bosom are justly hailed as the infant martyr flowers, the first buds of the church killed by the frost of persecution. They died not only for Christ but in his stead.”

What if we knew the names of the victims of Herod’s infamous, paranoid rage?

What if the cries of Bethlehem took place today in Birmingham?

…For [REDACTED (NAMES OF BOYS IN CHURCH AGED TWO AND UNDER)] Continue reading “The Hope of the Holy Innocents”

My Sermon: Our Help

Hey internet: I was recently given the chance to preach at my church, St. Peter’s Anglican, on the Second Sunday of Lent. The sermon audio is now online. If you’ve got 23 minutes to spare, give it a listen

First, here are the passages

  • Psalm 121
  • Genesis 12:1-4
  • Romans 4:1-5, 13-17
  • John 3:1-17

Then, make sure to ignore my two seconds of speech from 16:35-16:37 in the audio, I departed from my notes — which ended at “Nicodemus then fades from the narrative,” (which he does in the passage at hand) — and said that Nicodemus apparently never gets it and never shows up again. As I was quickly reminded after the service, he does appear twice more in John’s Gospel. Oops! Next time I’ll stick to my notes and not make any extemporaneous comments about minor characters without thinking through the context first. 

Grace and Peace

~Josh

My 2014 Regional ETS Paper: Reconciliation and the Lack Thereof

If you’re interested, here’s the latest version of the Regional ETS paper I will present today at 5:00pm at Beeson Divinity School, room S009.

If you’re able to attend the presentation, that’s great! If not, feel free to give my paper a read and get back to me with any questions, comments, or suggestions. Atonement theology and the unity of the Church are two things about which I am very passionate, and intend to devote further study to these areas in the future.

Thanks

~Josh

My Regional ETS Presentation: Reconciliation and the Lack Thereof

If you’re in the Birmingham area from March 21-22, 2014, and you’re interested in evangelical theology, please consider attending the Evangelical Theological Society’s Southeastern Regional Meeting at Beeson Divinity School! This year’s theme is “the theological interpretation of Scripture,” and the plenary speaker is Wheaton’s Daniel J. Treier (incidentally, Dr. Treier and I are both alumni of Cedarville…go figure). 

Furthermore, if you’re free from 5:00-5:30pm on Friday, March 21, consider swinging by room S009 to hear me present “Reconciliation and the Lack Thereof: Atonement, Ecclesiology, and the Unity of God.” The atonement and the unity of the Church are topics that I’m passionate about, and I’m extremely grateful for the opportunity to give my first ever conference paper. Here’s the abstract: 

This essay endeavors to demonstrate the theological and exegetical legitimacy of viewing the atonement as the act in which the one God fulfills his creative purposes by bringing his uniqueness and simplicity to bear on our sinful, divisive condition through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus the Messiah in order to save a people to robust unity with himself, each other, and the entire creation. Given Adam Johnson’s thesis regarding God’s triune being-in-act, the fullness of the divine perfections, and the unity and diversity of Christ’s saving work, I draw upon the theology of Karl Barth and pertinent biblical data to frame a theory of the atonement based on the unity of God. Although the lack of ecclesiological unity is the impetus for my study, I choose primarily to emphasize the synthesis of God’s unity and the doctrine of reconciliation. That is, I focus on the theological explanations within the atonement of why the church is to be unified. However, after framing a unity-based theory of the atonement, I conclude this study by casting a vision for the ecclesiological implications of such a theory.

If you can’t make it to my presentation, but you’re interested in the topic, check out my previous series of posts and the undergraduate thesis paper from which this conference paper is drawn. Also, consider buying the new paperback edition of Adam J. Johnson’s God’s Being in Reconciliation: The Theological Basis of the Unity and Diversity of the Atonement in the Theology of Karl Barth (T&T Clark Studies in Systematic Theology). It’s much cheaper than the previous hardcover edition, and without his fresh insights into the doctrine of the atonement and Barthian theology, my paper would not have been possible. 

Finally, please attend the entire conference at Beeson if possible! Here’s the full schedule.

Grace and Peace

~Josh

 

Scripture: What The Bible Is And Why It Matters

INTRODUCTION: THE NATURE OF SCRIPTURE

As the illocutionary act which testifies to the Son of God1 as the ultimate redemptive and revelatory locution of the the triune God, Scripture is used by the Spirit of God to accomplish the perlocutionary end of redemption of, in, and through the people of God.2

[Ahem, in order to understand my first paragraph, you must first be familiar with the basics of Speech Act Theory. If you’ve never heard of it before, click that link, and then come back here. It will be worth it, I promise!]

The written Word of God is, therefore, the authority for followers of the living Word of God precisely because of its providential role in the divine speech-act, of which it is a necessary – yet not a sufficient – condition.3

Practically, this providential role has worked itself out in various ways throughout the history of the Church, perhaps most notably through the development of canon in the patristic era.

Theologically, the authority of Scripture is inescapably trinitarian in nature and ecclesiological in implication.

(For an explanation of the Trinity, see my essay “Trinity: What is it? (Why) Is it important?“)

WHAT SCRIPTURE IS FOR CHRISTIANS

For Christians, Scripture is the indispensable lens through which, with the Spirit’s illumination, we view Christ, who is himself the fullest lens through which we view the Godhead.

That is, the Bible is a vital link in the revelatory chain which includes Father, Son, Holy Spirit, and humanity. However, the Bible’s role in and for the Church is inescapably intertwined with (1) how the Bible came to be and (2) how it is properly to be accessed and interpreted.

How the Bible Came to Be

Although the story of how the table of contents at the beginning of each Christian Bible came into existence is an old one, questions of canon in this sense did not arise immediately after Christ’s resurrection and ascension.4

The earliest Christians, persuaded that Jesus of Nazareth was the foretold Messiah of Israel, eagerly adopted the Hebrew Scriptures, or Tanakh, as their own Scripture. Apart from the Bible’s narrative of YHWH’s redemptive mission with his covenant people, the Christ-event (life, death, and resurrection) made little sense.

In the other direction, however, the early Church believed that, as the fulfillment of the Tanakh, Christ himself was its true message. Put differently, the Hebrew Scriptures and the Son of God were considered reciprocally-interpretive, and this relationship was the first sense in which canon was considered as “the rule of truth”: the Christ-event and the Scriptures illuminate each other.5

The link between this earliest consideration of canon and the table-of-contents approach begins with the role proclamation and confession of the Son of God as the Bible’s true meaning – of the Gospel of Christ according to the Scriptures – have in creating the Church proper (cf. 1 Cor. 15:1-9).6

Because Christians are primarily interested in bringing people to faith in the faithful God through Christ, the proclamation of the Christ-event according to the Word of God constitutes the Church as the divinely-ordained way in which faith is brought about (cf. Rom. 10:17). To use a spatial metaphor, this ecclesial “point” of proclamation becomes a “line” throughout history by tradition as “the act of passing down” and “the content of what is passed down.”7

The Church is thus formed by proclamation/confession of Jesus the Messiah according to the Scriptures, and preserved by tradition.

In the second century C.E., Irenaeus of Lyons relied upon the connection between Scripture and apostolic tradition to refute Gnostic heresies which threatened to destabilize the Christian community by, among other things, insisting that Scripture could not be read at face value.8

This connection was so strong that he referred to the “traditioned” teachings of the apostles as in scripturis, responding to those who accused these apostolic “Writings” of novel fiction by delineating the unity of Christian doctrine which had been passed down from the apostles (eyewitnesses of the Christ-event) to the Church through a clear line of bishops.9

It was of crucial importance to Irenaeus that Christian doctrine was (1) unified and (2) in direct continuity with the apostles’ teaching (and therefore with the proclamation of Christ and the Christologically-fulfilled expectations of the Hebrew Scriptures).10

Thus the Gnostic controversies of the second century led to canonization in its second sense: the Church’s recognition/acknowledgment of writings which already had authority due to their coherence with the complex dialectic between Scripture, the Christ-event, the apostles, proclamation, and tradition.11

Canon’s final sense, as a list of included and excluded books which comprise the Bible, came into being in the fourth century. The Church’s recognition of already authoritative writings culminated in C.E. 367 with the Thirty-Ninth Festal Epistle of Athanasius – the first canon list to include “all, and nothing but, all [sic] the books of our New Testament.”12

Scripture’s Proper Interpretation and Role

In interacting with the Word of God, it is imperative that the people of God resist the impulse to jump behind the text – either to a Gnostic-inspired and disembodied spiritual narrative, or to historical criticism’s rationalistic insistence on verifiable facts.

Properly handled, the Bible results in the proclamation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, in order to produce faith in the faithful God.

Arguably, the best interpretive method accounts for both Christ as the fullest truth of Scripture and the varied ways in which the Bible has been used by God through his Spirit to accomplish his redemptive mission in manifold ways.

That is, in terms of my thesis above, the best biblical hermeneutic accounts for both the central locution (Christ) and the varied perlocutionary effects accomplished in/through the Church by the Spirit throughout history.

It does not leave Christ behind in its insistence on esoteric behind-the-text matters, nor does it refuse the Spirit its right to bring the written Word to bear on the interpreter’s present context in fresh ways. In this way, interpretation of the Bible leads to faith through the faithful proclamation of the Christ-event according to the Scriptures.

SCRIPTURE’S OWN AUTHORITY

As mentioned above, Scripture’s authority comes from its providential role in the speech-act of God, of which it is a necessary – yet not a sufficient – condition.

That is, although the illocutionary acts of the Bible are an indispensable link in the revelatory chain, they do not comprise the entire chain. Any discussion of Scripture’s authority must, therefore, take place with its discursive context in mind, by including a discussion of the Christological locution and Spirit-empowered, ecclesiological perlocutionary effects of the divine speech-act.

Christologically, the illocutionary acts of the written Word of God bear witness to Christ the living Word as their central meaning: the ultimate locution of God.

Jesus himself never shied away from claiming that he was the fulfillment of the Hebrew Scriptures (Matt. 5:17; Lk. 24:25-27, 44). Indeed, he chastised the Jewish leaders for thoroughly studying the Scriptures, yet failing to see that the Tanakh bore witness to him (John 5:39-40)!

Likewise, in Acts, Peter (3:11-26), Stephen (7:1-53), and Paul (13:16-41) all portray Christ as the fulfillment of YHWH’s previous interactions with Israel in the Tanakh. The written Word of God is authoritative in that it bears witness to the Living Word as the zenith of God’s redemptive revelation – the “image of the invisible God” in whom “the fulness of God was pleased to dwell” (Col. 1:15, 19, ESV).

When the Bible speaks of its own authority, it never does so apart from the life of the faithful, the Church.

The two favorite passages for the inspiration (and often, the inerrancy) of Scripture both refuse to reduce the Bible to a set of propositions to be debated within a correspondence theory of truth. The Scriptures were “breathed out by God,” not to be profitable for scientific analysis, but for “reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness” (2 Tim. 3:16, ESV). Furthermore, “men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit,” (2 Pet. 1:21, ESV) for the sake of the people of God, that they might know Christ (2 Pet. 1:12-21). Arguably, then, the ties between inspiration and sanctification are stronger than those between inspiration and certain common notions of inerrancy.

At this intersection between the inspired illocutionary acts of Scripture and their perlocutionary effects lies the Spirit of God, who empowers the “inscripturate” Word to become “incardiate,” or “taken to heart” by God’s people.13

Pneumatologically, then, the Bible is able both to be and become the Word of God, as its written words are used in various ways by the Spirit throughout the ages to effect God’s mission of redemption in and through his people.14

The christological, ecclesiological, and pneumatological elements of the divine speech-act thus enable the written Word continually to be an indispensable part of divine discourse, instead of a merely static word.15

CONCLUSION

Throughout the ages, God has used his Word – living and written – to do everything from creating the world, to redeeming it; from calling a people, to establishing orthodoxy and orthopraxy in his Church; from inspiring reformation, to drawing people from every tribe, tongue, and nation to himself.

In order best to appropriate the written Word of God and submit to its continuing authority in their lives, the people of God should focus on proclaiming its central message as the Gospel of Jesus Christ and allowing the Holy Spirit to accomplish fresh perlocutionary effects in and through them as God’s redemptive mission moves toward its consummation – when the written Word of God will be in their hearts and the living Word of God in front of their faces, forever (Jer. 31:33-34; Rev. 21-22).

(For an attempted summary of the Christian faith, see my essay: “Theology in Outline: What do I believe?“)


NOTES 

1 Unless otherwise noted, I use the terms “Son of God,” “Jesus,” “Christ/Messiah,” and permutations thereof interchangeably. The same applies to “Scripture” and “Bible.”

2 I here adopt J.L. Austin’s speech-act theory, as put forth in How to Do Things with Words (2nd ed. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1975). Briggs offers the following helpful summary: “Austin sought to distinguish between the act performed in saying something and the act performed by saying something, labeling these ‘illocutionary’ and ‘perlocutionary’ acts respectively.” See Richard S. Briggs, “Speech-Act Theory” in Dictionary for Theological Interpretation of the Bible (ed. Kevin J. Vanhoozer et al.; Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2005), 763. I am also heavily indebted to Kevin J. Vanhoozer, “Word of God” in Dictionary for Theological Interpretation of the Bible (ed. Kevin J. Vanhoozer et al.; Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2005), 850-4.

3 Theologically modifying Austin’s framework, the “divine speech-act” consists of God the Father (locutor), God the Son (locution), Scripture (illocutionary act), and God the Spirit (who fulfills the perlocutionary effects).

4 Piotr J. Malysz From Christ to the Written Gospel: An Entry Point into the Canon of (NT) Scripture (History and Doctrine Fall 2013 Handout, unpublished), 1-3.

5 Malysz, 2.

6 Malysz, 2.

7 Cf. the discussion of παράδοσις in Malysz, 2.

8 Book III. 2:2, from “Selections from Irenaeus of Lyons, The Refutation and Overthrow of the Knowledge Falsely So Called (Adversus Haereses)” in Early Christian Fathers (ed. Cyril C. Richardson; New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996), 358-97. Hereafter, Adversus Haereses will be cited in the following form: “Irenaeus, I.1:1” or “Irenaeus, I. ch. 1”

9 Irenaeus, III. 1:1; chs. 2-3. In scripturis is noted by Richardson, Early Christian Fathers, 370 n.47.

10 Irenaeus, III. 3:3.

11 Malysz, 3.

12 Malysz, 3.

13 Vanhoozer, 854.

14 Cf. the discussions of Karl Barth’s and Vanhoozer’s own views (850-1, 4).

15 Vanhoozer, 853.

Reading and Interpreting the Bible: Deuteronomy 6:1-15

Deuteronomy 6:1-15 (NRSV)

Now this is the commandment—the statutes and the ordinances—that the Lord your God charged me to teach you to observe in the land that you are about to cross into and occupy, so that you and your children and your children’s children may fear the Lord your God all the days of your life, and keep all his decrees and his commandments that I am commanding you, so that your days may be long. Hear therefore, O Israel, and observe them diligently, so that it may go well with you, and so that you may multiply greatly in a land flowing with milk and honey, as the Lord, the God of your ancestors, has promised you.

Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.

10 When the Lord your God has brought you into the land that he swore to your ancestors, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, to give you—a land with fine, large cities that you did not build, 11 houses filled with all sorts of goods that you did not fill, hewn cisterns that you did not hew, vineyards and olive groves that you did not plant—and when you have eaten your fill, 12 take care that you do not forget the Lord, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. 13 The Lord your God you shall fear; him you shall serve, and by his name alone you shall swear. 14 Do not follow other gods, any of the gods of the peoples who are all around you, 15 because the Lord your God, who is present with you, is a jealous God. The anger of the Lord your God would be kindled against you and he would destroy you from the face of the earth.

INTRODUCTION

As the climactic renewal and enumeration of Yahweh’s covenant with Israel, Deuteronomy contains at its core a cross between an ancient Near Eastern law code and treaty.[1]

Within this structure, the laws and treaty stipulations – general (5:1-11:32) and specific (12:1-26:19) – are given pride of place. After the setting and introduction to the covenant (4:44-49), Moses[2] begins his second sermon (5:1-28:69) with an interpretive restatement of the Decalogue (5:6-21), couched within an extended reflection on the initial law-giving at Horeb and Moses’ role as mediator (5:1-33).

In the passage at hand (6:1-15), he then transitions to the remainder of the general stipulations (6:1-11:32) with an introductory exhortation (6:1-3), a distillation of the covenant principles (6:4-5), and an extension of these principles to future generations and society (6:6-9), concluding with a warning against forgetfulness and idolatry as the Israelites soon enter the land of Canaan (6:10-15). In remembrance of and in response to Yahweh’s unique faithfulness, Israel must love Yahweh absolutely and exclusively by internalizing, embodying, and teaching covenant faithfulness as they inherit the blessings of the promised land.

INTRODUCTORY EXHORTATION: 6:1-3

Moses begins this passage with an exhortation to keep the general stipulations of the covenant to be discussed in Deuteronomy 6-11. In response to Yahweh’s command (recounted at 5:31), Moses teaches the people the “commandments, statutes, and ordinances” (5:31, 6:1; referring to the covenant stipulations) [3] so that they will “carry them out in the land” (5:31, 6:1).

This transmission of the covenant stipulations from Yahweh to Moses to the Israelites was not meant to achieve a merely epistemic result, but also an ontic one. That is, Moses was not merely teaching them the stipulations so that they would merely know (and do) the right things, but so that they would be the right kind of people, internalizing and embodying the stipulations as they entered the promised land of Canaan. The intended result of the commandments, statutes, and ordinances was holistic covenant faithfulness.

At the heart of the appropriate epistemic and ontic response to the covenant stipulations was the proper fear of Yahweh their God (6:2a), which was to result in a continual obedience for generations upon generations (6:2b),[4] reflecting the importance of teaching covenant faithfulness to their children.[5] As the injunctions to “pay attention” and “be careful” (6:3a) indicate, this obedience was also to be careful and deliberate.[6] The promised results of such continual and careful covenant faithfulness are long life (6:2c) and many descendants (6:2b, 3a) in the bountiful promised land (6:1b, 3b), recalling Yahweh’s unique faithfulness to fulfill his promises of land and offspring to Abraham in Genesis 12:1-3.[7]

DISTILLATION OF THE COVENANT PRINCIPLES: 6:4-5

Following the brief introduction to the general stipulations (6:1-3), Moses distills the Decalogue, itself an encapsulation of the entire covenant, into just sixteen Hebrew words, providing “the expression of the essence of all God’s person and purposes” (6:4-5).[8]

Named after the first Hebrew word in 6:4 (shéma’, “hear, pay attention”), the “Great Shema” has long been regarded as central to Deuteronomy and to Israelite theology and praxis.[9] However, because of its brevity, the translation of the Shema (particularly 6:4) into English has been the topic of considerable debate. Although the initial imperative and vocative (“pay attention, Israel”) are clear enough, translating the remaining four terms (“Yahweh, our God, Yahweh, one”) into English involves making a decision on the placement of the copulative and the precise translation of ekhad as “one” or “alone.”[10]

On balance, given the statement’s quasi-poetic brevity, it seems best to render 6:4: “Yahweh is our God, Yahweh is one.”[11] This translation allows for a mediating position between Block’s arguments for rendering ekhad as “alone,” emphasizing God’s uniqueness, and Janzen’s arguments for God’s oneness as internal consistency and faithfulness to Israel.[12] Compared to the gamut of Canaanite and other ancient Near Eastern deities, Yahweh was indeed unique,[13] primarily because of his faithfulness to Israel from the patriarchs (6:3b, 10a), through the exodus (6:12), and into the imminent conquest of Canaan (6:1b, 3, 10-11). That “Yahweh is one” is not so much an ontological statement as it is a historical reflection[14] in remembrance of Yahweh’s unique faithfulness to his covenant people.

Therefore, in response to this unique faithfulness, Israel must love Yahweh absolutely (6:5), as seen by the concentric use of lebab (“heart,” the inner being, including emotion and intellect), nephesh (“soul,” the entire being, including desires), and me’od (“strength,” the physical being, including economic and social resources).[15] This is the only proper response to the God who is truly ekhad (6:4),[16] comprising the essential principle upon which the entire covenant rested.[17] Related to the previously mentioned fear of Yahweh and obedience to the covenant stipulations (6:1-3), loving Yahweh involves the epistemic/ontic response of internalizing (with the lebab and nephesh) and embodying (through the me’od) covenant faithfulness.

EXTENSION TO FAMILY AND SOCIETY – 6:6-9

The proper love of Yahweh is absolute, permeating not only the entire person (6:5), but also all of life (6:6-9),[18] including the family unit (6:7) and society (6:8-9). Beginning again with the concept of epistemic internalization, Moses commands the Israelites to keep “these words” (referring to the entire covenant through the Shema)[19] on their hearts/minds (6:6).

This internalization of the covenant through constant reflection is then to be extended by teaching covenant faithfulness to future generations (6:7a), here described with an unusual verb (shanan) which evokes the imagery of engraving a message into stone.[20] Just as Moses is teaching the Israelites the covenant stipulations, they must teach these things to their children through constant repetition and discussion of the faithful covenant lifestyle within the household, reflected through the double merism of 6:7b (sitting/walking; lying down/getting up).[21]

Finally, this commitment to covenant faithfulness was to transcend the household and permeate the entire society (6:8-9). Although the instructions here (to “tie,” “fasten,” and “inscribe” the covenant stipulations on the forearm, forehead, and door frames, respectively) were taken literally in later Jewish tradition,[22] they were probably meant to be interpreted metaphorically.[23] In this case, 6:8 refers to the embodiment of the covenant principles in everyday life, identifying each individual Israelite as a faithful covenant member.[24]

However, in 6:9 the exhortation to covenant faithfulness is then expanded to the household and the community as “these words” (6:6) are inscribed “on the doorframes of your houses and gates” (6:9).[25] In response to Yahweh’s unique faithfulness, the Israelites are to love him absolutely by internalizing (6:6), embodying (6:8-9), and teaching (6:7) covenant faithfulness.

(For more even more biblical exposition, see my essay on Philemon.)

WARNING AGAINST FORGETFUL IDOLATRY: 6:10-15

However, the proper love of Yahweh is also exclusive, for his uniqueness demands that he be worshipped alone. After distilling the covenant (6:4-5) and extending its essential claim to the family and society (6:6-9), Moses exhorts his audience to eschew all forms of forgetful idolatry. Instead, the Israelites are to love Yahweh exclusively as they inherit the blessings of the promised land, in remembrance of and in response to his unique faithfulness (6:10-15).

The historical context of this passage is especially important for the interpretation of 6:10-11. Moses reminds the Israelites of Yahweh’s unique faithfulness by linking the divine promises of land to the patriarchs with the fulfillment of those promises in the imminent conquest and occupation of Canaan.[26] The concrete description of the promised land in 6:10b-11 was designed to remind the audience that it was a blessing and a gift from Yahweh in faithful fulfillment of his kingly duties.[27] The warning in 6:12 to “be careful” reveals Moses’ anxiety that the sudden affluence the Israelites would experience in Canaan might lead them to forget their uniquely faithful God, who had redeemed them from the oppressive hand of the Egyptians and provided for them throughout the wilderness wanderings.[28]

Therefore, 6:13 contains an intensely covenantal threefold call to the exclusive love of Yahweh alone.[29] As part of the proper response to Yahweh’s oneness (6:4), the Israelites are to fear only Yahweh, serve only Yahweh, and swear only by Yahweh’s name.[30] Moses then intensifies the warning even further in 6:14-15 with a rephrasing of the first two commandments (Deut 5:7-10).[31] On the basis of Yahweh’s righteous jealousy and the promised punishment of exile (5:9; 6:15; cf. 28:63; Lev 26:43), the Israelites are to love Yahweh exclusively by completely eschewing all forms of foreign idolatry (6:14).[32]

(For an overview on how to read the bible, check out Amy Chase Ashley’s Scripture: Handle With Care.)

CONCLUSION

As an introduction to the main exposition of the general covenant stipulations (Deut 6-11), Moses begins with an exhortation, calling the Israelites to the proper internalized and embodied response to Yahweh’s commands, statutes, and ordinances: covenant faithfulness as they enter the promised land (6:1-3). Then, he presents the distilled essence of the covenant principles in 6:4-5: the demand for the absolute love of Yahweh on the basis of his unique faithfulness.

This essential covenant claim is then extended to the family unit and society in 6:6-9 as the Israelites are commanded to internalize, embody, and teach covenant faithfulness to future generations.

Finally, in 6:10-15, in anticipation of the conquest of Canaan as a revelation of Yahweh’s unique faithfulness to the patriarchs and the nation, the people are sternly warned to eschew all forms of forgetful idolatry and instead to worship Yahweh alone.

Therefore, taken as a whole, Deuteronomy 6:1-15 was written to teach its original audience that, in remembrance of and in response to Yahweh’s unique faithfulness, they were to love Yahweh absolutely and exclusively by internalizing, embodying, and teaching covenant faithfulness as they inherited the blessings of the promised land.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

(Links are affiliate links.)

Block, Daniel I. “How many is God? An Investigation into the Meaning of Deuteronomy 6:4-5.” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 47 (2004): 193-212.

Carpenter, Eugene E. “Deuteronomy.” Pages 418-548 in Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy. Edited by John H. Walton. Vol. 1 of Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary: Old Testament. Edited by John H. Walton. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2009

Christensen, Duane L. Deuteronomy 1:1-21:9, revised. Word Biblical Commentary 6a. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2001.

Hamilton, Victor P. Handbook on the Pentateuch: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy. 2nd ed. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2005.

Janzen, J. Gerald. “On the Most Important Word in the Shema (Deuteronomy 6:4-5).” Vetus Testamentum 37 (1987): 280-300.

McConville, J.G. Deuteronomy. Apollos Old Testament Commentary 5. Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2002.

Merrill, Eugene H. Deuteronomy. New American Commentary 4. Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 1994.

Rad, Gerhard von. Deuteronomy: A Commentary. Translated by D. Barton. Philadelphia: Westminster, 1966.

Walton, John H., Victor H. Matthews, and Mark W. Chavalas. The IVP Bible Background Commentary: Old Testament. Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2000.

Wenham, Gordon J. A Guide to the Pentateuch. Vol. 1 of Exploring the Old Testament. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2002.

Notes

[1] The relevant sections are: Historical Prologue – Deut 1-3; Laws/Treaty Stipulations – chs. 4-26; Document Clause – 27:3; 31:9-13; Blessings – 28:1-14; and Curses – 28:15-68. Gordon J. Wenham proposes this structural approach to the Deuteronomic covenant in A Guide to the Pentateuch (vol. 1 of Exploring the Old Testament; Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2002), 125. The similarities between Deuteronomy and ANE suzerain-vassal treaties are also noted by Eugene E. Carpenter in “Deuteronomy,” in Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy (ed. John H. Walton; vol. 1 of Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary: Old Testament, ed. John H. Walton; Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2009),  420.

[2] Throughout this study, I assume Mosaic authorship of Deuteronomy. Furthermore, I assume that the passage at hand was originally composed just prior to Moses’ death and the subsequent conquest of Canaan. With regards to setting, Carpenter places Moses in the plains of Moab on the eastern side of the Jordan River in either 1406 or 1229 B.C. The earliest extra-biblical account of the Israelites in Canaan, a stele erected by Merneptah in western Thebes, mentions them already in the land in 1209 B.C (Cf. Carpenter, 420).

[3] J.G. McConville, Deuteronomy (Apollos 5; Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2002), 140. On mitzvah, khuqqim, and mishpatim, Eugene H. Merrill notes this as the standard reference to the covenant stipulations as opposed to the Decalogue or the law as a whole (Deuteronomy (NAC 4; Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 1994), 160). Cf. Deut 4:1-8 for an example of how this phrase and its permutations are used as a reference and structural marker.

[4] Merrill, 161.

[5] This is the first mention in 6:1-15 of the theme taken up again at 6:7.

[6] McConville (140) notes the alliteration of shema’ and shemar, describing the cumulative effect as a call to “careful, sustained obedience.”

[7] McConville, 140.

[8] Merrill, 162.

[9] Daniel I. Block claims that “the Shema’ is as close as early Judaism came to the formulation of a creed” (“How many is God? An Investigation into the Meaning of Deuteronomy 6:4-5,” JETS 47 (2004): 195). Similarly, most commentators note the Shema’s distinctive importance. Cf. Duane L. Christensen, Deuteronomy 1:1-21:9, revised (WBC 6a; Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2001), 142; McConville, 139-140; Merrill, 162; Gerhard von Rad, Deuteronomy: A Commentary (trans. D. Barton; Philadelphia: Westminster, 1966), 64.

[10] These are only two of the numerous proposals for the translation of ekhad. See Block, 195-8 for a full discussion.

[11] J. Gerald Janzen, “On the Most Important Word in the Shema (Deuteronomy 6:4-5),” VT 37 (1987): 280-300; Merrill, 162-3.

[12] See Block, 211-2 and Janzen, 300

[13] Carpenter, 456; John H. Walton, Victor H. Matthews, and Mark W. Chavalas, The IVP Bible Background Commentary: Old Testament (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2000), 177.

[14] Victor P. Hamilton, Handbook on the Pentateuch: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy (2nd ed.; Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2005), 394.

[15] I have here conflated the lexical data provided by Block, 203 and Merrill, 164.

[16] Merrill, 164.

[17] McConville, 139.

[18] Block, 204.

[19] McConville, 142; Merrill, 167.

[20] Merrill, 167.

[21] Block, 204; Merrill, 167.

[22] This literal interpretation resulted in the tephillin and phylacteries, small boxes containing Torah verses (Exod 13:1-10; 13:11-16; Deut 6:4-9; 11:13-21) which were worn on the forehead and forearms. Similarly, 6:9 was interpreted literally, resulting in the mezuzah, boxes containing Deut 6:4-9 and 11:13-21 placed on the doorposts of Jewish dwellings. Cf. Merrill, 168.

[23] As argued by McConville (142) and Merrill (168), although McConville does allow for the possibility of a literal reading.

[24] Merrill, 168.

[25] Block, 204; Merrill, 168.

[26] Christensen, 146; McConville, 143; Merrill, 169.

[27] Cf. “the duty of kings in Mesopotamia to build cities as part of incorporating new territory into their kingdom” (McConville, 143).

[28] von Rad, 64.

[29] Merrill, 171.

[30] McConville, 143.

[31] Merrill, 171.

[32] McConville, 143; Merrill, 171.

Romans 13: Reading An Abused Text of Scripture Rightly

Introduction

This study of Romans 13 rests upon a crucial presupposition: without context, words can mean anything and everything, and therefore mean nothing. It is only through the delimiting influence of context that words, phrases, sentences, and paragraphs are endowed with significance.

Although this concept seems simple and justified enough, it is often forgotten within the field of biblical exegesis. Due to influences as simple as our versification of the biblical text and as complex as the historical/theological developments which have dictated how we teach and interpret the Scriptures, many exegetes (wittingly or unwittingly) ignore context when trying to ascertain the meaning of particular biblical texts.

An adequate case study of this phenomenon is the interpretation(s) of Romans 13:1-7, a text that has been used to justify everything from utter obedience to totalitarian regimes to unquestioning support of harsh anti-immigration laws. These seven verses from Paul’s epistle to the Romans have been grossly abused at numerous points since their original composition.

In Romans 13:1-7, Paul exhorts the Roman believers to apply his previous commands toward love (12:9), harmony (12:16), and peace (12:18) in the context of obedience to government (13:1-5) and the payment of taxes (13:6-7).

Far from being a comprehensive condensation of the apostle’s beliefs regarding any and all governments past and present, this passage is a specific and historically-conditioned pastoral address to the Roman believers, discouraging them from political unrest, disobedience, and rebellion in order to protect their testimony and the effectiveness of the Roman church in the gospel mission.

This thesis will be “proven” by appealing to the historical context of the original audience and the overarching context of Romans 12:9-13:10 in which this passage rests.

(For more on the book of Romans, check out my sermon on Romans 1:1-17.)

Historical Context

When Romans 13:1-7 is read as if it was written in a modern North American context, it seems as though Paul is appealing to the sovereignty of God in the affairs of nations to remind us of the divinely-appointed nature of our free-market economy and federal constitutional republic.

All of this is supposedly done to prompt us toward active participation in our civil government and unquestioning obedience to all of its laws. After all, these verses come up in discussions of Christian political involvement, debates on just war theory vs. pacifism, and diatribes against illegal immigrants and those who desire to aid them.

However, using these seven verses as a packet theology of church and state is problematic, even within the Pauline corpus alone. The same man who wrote Romans 13 also frequently took up themes in his writings that would challenge the power and authority of the Roman Empire, for the declaration that Jesus is Lord contains the implicit declaration that Caesar is not. Our understanding of these seven verses must, therefore, be able to mesh with other passages (such as Phil 2:6-11; 3:20-21; 1 Thess 1:9-10; and 4:13-5:11) and their implications on relations between church and state.[1]

Many commentators in recent years have recognized the importance of interpreting this passage in light of its historical context at the time of its composition (c. A.D. 57[2]), instead of assuming that these verses are Paul’s fundamental views on how church and state should relate to each other.[3]

Knowledge of the situation facing the Roman Christians in A.D. 57 is crucial to the interpretation of this text. Emperor Claudius had expulsed Jews from the city of Rome in A.D. 49, removing Jewish believers from the Roman church and therefore leaving only Gentile Christians behind in their stead.[4]

However, Claudius was killed by his wife Agrippina in A.D. 54, and her son Nero advanced to the throne that same year, immediately allowing the Jews to return to the city. When Romans was written by Paul in A.D. 57, the Empire enjoyed a period of peace that looked quite different from the chaos that would characterize the later years of Nero’s reign.

Guided by his advisor Seneca, Nero made promises of a different and better peace than the pax romana of Augustus. He promised true peace, characterized by restraint and the peaceful resistance to using force in order to govern. While these promises were dashed beginning in A.D. 59, with Nero’s matricide, the loss of his advisors, and the beginning of his persecution of Christians, it is crucial to remember that Paul wrote Romans during the period of hopeful peace from A.D. 54-59.

Romans 13:1-7 should not, therefore, be interpreted as if it were written to Roman believers in the later years of Nero’s reign, when persecution and oppression were rampant, for this would unduly strengthen Paul’s “pro-Empire” sentiments here.[5]

With this background information, it is easy to see why Paul here gives advice to his readers, a cosmopolitan church in Rome struggling to figure out Jew-Gentile dynamics in the early years of Nero’s reign, so as to prevent them from drawing negative attention to themselves and damaging the effectiveness of the gospel mission.

Although things were presumably “going well,” as mentioned above, Paul knew full well that things could get tense for the Roman believers very quickly. Despite the period of relative peace from A.D. 54-59, tensions were rising in Rome in A.D. 57-58 regarding the particularly nasty practice of indirect taxation. Furthermore, the Jewish believers who had returned to the city in A.D. 54 might not have been on the best terms with neither the Roman authorities nor the Gentile believers. Much of what Paul has to say in this epistle speaks to this issue: the relationship between Jewish and Gentile Christians within the Roman context.

It is not, therefore, unreasonable to assume that this played a role in the social tension Paul here addresses in Romans 13:1-7. Furthermore, revolutionary sentiments were in vogue at this time among the Jews in Palestine, and Paul was perhaps worried that the fervor would spread to the Roman church and quickly create some serious problems given the tensions within the church and its social context.[6]

Positively, then, when Romans was written, the original audience enjoyed a period of relative peace and stability before the chaotic upheaval that would take place in A.D. 59.

Negatively, there was still quite a bit of tension within and around the Roman church which had the potential to divide the church and get the Christians in serious trouble with Roman authorities if rebellion became the rallying cry for the followers of Jesus, assured of the lordship of their King and the reality of his kingdom.

It is therefore a mistake to read Romans 13:1-7 as a justification of the sins of the state, as if this passage gave a carte blanche to the atrocities to be committed in the later years of Nero’s reign. Paul was capable of saying negative things about pagan governments when they were going awry[7], but he nevertheless appealed to God’s sovereignty over human governments in order to prevent the tense situation of his audience from erupting into a social upheaval that would wreck the church’s testimony and hinder the gospel mission in the city of Rome and the empire over which that city ruled.

His audience then (and readers of the epistle today) would not, therefore, be expected to never challenge the government or abstain from promoting or participating in its practices, as Romans 13:1-7 has often been used to argue. Instead, they were (and are) to wisely interact with human governments, not seeking to cause any trouble in society that would damage their testimony, but not hesitating to stand firm in the cause of Christ their King when human governments do things contrary to the kingdom of God.[8] Wright pulls these themes together quite well:

[P]recisely because of all the counter-imperial hints Paul has given not only in this letter and elsewhere but indeed by his entire gospel, it is vital that he steer Christians away from the assumption that loyalty to Jesus would mean the kind of civil disobedience and revolution that merely reshuffles the political cards into a different order. […] The main thing Paul wants to emphasize is that, even though Christians are servants of the Messiah, the true lord, this does not give them carte blanche to ignore the temporary subordinates whose appointed task, whether (like Cyrus) they know it or not, is to bring at least a measure of God’s order and justice to the world. The church must live as a sign of the kingdom yet to come, but since that kingdom is characterized by justice, peace, and joy in the Spirit [14.17], it cannot be inaugurated in the present by violence and hatred.[9]

These sentiments and those outlined above will now be augmented by a brief examination of Roman 13:1-7 within the overarching context of Romans 12:9-13:10.[10]

Scriptural Context: Romans 12:9-13:10

The passage at hand only makes sense within the overarching context of Romans 12:9-13:10. Although Paul undoubtedly changes topics at 13:1, the thematic links between 13:1-7 and 12:9-21 are difficult to ignore. KakoV (“evil”) and agaqoV (“good”) occur in Rom 12:17, 21 and 13:3-4. Orgh (“wrath”) is mentioned in 12:19 and 13:4, 5. Also, conceptually, vengeance is mentioned in 12:19 and 13:4.[11] It is therefore quite reasonable to see a connection between 13:1-7 and 12:9-21.

The links between this passage and the one immediately preceding it, however, should not overshadow the importance of the thematic verses earlier in 12:1-2. There Paul effectively redefines the people of God as no longer just Jews, but Gentiles as well. This is a common enough theme throughout the entire epistle and in almost all of Paul’s writings,[12] but in Romans 12:1-15:13, it is of particular importance.

Having spent the first eleven chapters of the epistle explaining the identity of the people of God as a mix of Jews and Gentiles and defending the covenant loyalty of God in the process, Paul now devotes chapters 12-15 to redefining the “rule of life” of the people of God.[13] In 12:9-21, Paul proclaims “love as the fundamental moral imperative in human relationships,”[14] urging his readers to pursue harmony (12:16) and peace (12:18). He then redefines in 13:1-7 how the people of God in the church at Rome should relate to the power structures of the society in which they dwell.

Romans 12:9-21 is one of the most loosely-constructed passages in the entire epistle. This means that it would take quite a bit of time and space to comprehensively analyze the syntax and detailed meaning of the passage. However, some general observations are in order.

The thematic verse of this paragraph is 12:9 (NET)[15], “Love must be without hypocrisy. Abhor what is evil, cling to what is good.” From there, Paul emphasizes the important manifestations of genuine love: mutual devotion and eagerness in showing honor (12:10), enthusiastic spiritual service (12:11), hopeful joy and persistent prayer in the face of suffering (12:12), and hospitably meeting the needs of the saints (12:13). Harmony is commanded within and outside the church, extending even to persecutors (12:14, 16). Instead of responding in kind to their persecutors and therefore being “overcome by evil” (12:21a), Paul urges them to live peaceably (12:17-18), forbidding them from taking vengeance into their own hands (12:19). Instead, the Roman believers are to “overcome evil with good” (12:21b), and this is illustrated in 12:20, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him a drink; for in doing this you will be heaping burning coals on his head.”

At this point after 12:21, most modern English readers of Scripture are confronted by a large “13” and perhaps a subject heading, such as “Submission to Civil Government.” The advantages of verse and chapter divisions for Bible reading and study are well-known. However, the chapter division here has had detrimental effects on the exegesis of this passage.

Although seemingly a very minor change, it puts undue emphasis on Paul’s supposed change of topic, prompting the interpretations of many that this is Paul’s comprehensive theology of church and state relations, ignoring the passage’s context and the historical situation of the original audience, who would have heard this epistle read without the explanation of a chapter division or sub-heading.

Romans 13:1-7 is most naturally read as the unpacking of the principles of 12:9-21, in the context of how Christians in Rome should behave in relation to the powers that governed the society in which they dwelt. It answers the implied question (after reading 12:9-21): “Paul, if we are to do these things (love genuinely, pursue harmony and peace, do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good, etc.), how should this apply in regards to our relationship with the rulers of our city and empire?”

The specific rules that governed the theocracy of ancient Israel no longer held sway for the international and multi-ethnic body of Christ. As noted above, the situation in Rome, although relatively peaceful, was still quite tense within and outside of the church. Jews and Gentiles were struggling to remain unified in the Messiah in spite of their cultural differences.

Furthermore, Jews in Rome, only recently allowed back into the city, may have been culturally stigmatized as superstitious and unwanted. Tensions were building because of indirect taxation. And Jews in Palestine were growing more and more rebellious.[16]

It is not therefore hard to imagine why Paul felt the pastoral need to apply the principles of 12:9-21 to the realm of society and government. A “perfect storm” was brewing underneath the surface, one that could put the Christians in Rome at odds with not only each other but with the Roman Empire itself very quickly if the believers there tended towards promoting social unrest, perhaps due to an over-realized eschatology that would want to usher in the kingdom of God by overthrowing Roman rule. If the Christians in Rome made a wrong move, evil could quickly overcome them.

While a full analysis of the argument of the text at hand is beyond the scope of this essay, a brief trace of the thought-flow of Romans 13:1-7 will aid in comprehension of its contextually-appropriate meaning. The general command to submit to the authorities is found in 13:1a, and is reiterated in 13:5.

The first reason for this submission is that the authorities have been appointed by God (13:1b). Logically, then, those who oppose the authorities oppose “the ordinance of God” (13:2b). The consequence of disobeying the general command is therefore God’s judgment[17] (13:2b).

The second reason for submission is that the rulers are servants of God to commend good and to administer retribution to evil, although these two verses can also be seen as support for the claim that those who resist the authorities can expect judgment on earth[18] (13:3-4).

Paul then restates the main thesis of 13:1-4 in 13:5, urging his readers to submit because of “wrath” (they would face judgment if disobedient) and “conscience” (they would be opposing God’s ordinance). He then closes this paragraph with an appeal to the readers’ current practice of paying taxes in submission to the government (13:6), urging them therefore to continue respectfully in what they have already been doing (13:7).[19]

When unhindered by the chapter division, it is easy to see how Romans 13:1-7 relates to 12:9-21. The genuine love commanded in 12:9a would be quite hard to apply to the impersonal institution of the Roman government. On the other hand, it would have been quite easy for the rebellious attitudes of the Jews in Palestine to seep into the Roman context, prompting the Roman Christians to rebel and try and institute the kingdom of God in opposition to Roman rule.

Paul steps in and applies the principles of non-violence, non-retribution, and enemy love (12:14, 17, 18-20) to the context of government and society. In order to “overcome evil with good” (12:21) when it came to the Roman powers, the believers in Rome were not to rebel violently or cause unnecessary civil unrest, but to submit to the governing authorities (13:1a) with the acknowledgment of God’s sovereignty over the said powers (13:1b).

It would be a mistake, however, to go to the other end of the spectrum and argue that Paul is urging his audience to give unthinking and critical approval of everything the Roman government did. As mentioned above, Paul was more than willing to critique governments and empires for the sake of God’s kingdom and the cause of Christ.

It would also be a mistake to argue that Romans 13:1-7 is a justification for the active participation in government activities (political office, warfare, etc.) both ancient and modern. Although God is still sovereign over modern nations, Paul’s argument here does not address the issue of active Christian participation in government because that was not on the radar of first-century Christian life in the Roman Empire.

Instead, Paul’s main point is that his readers should not revolt, but that they should instead stay out of trouble by obeying the authorities and participating in the basic constructs of their society (i.e. paying taxes).

The argument for placing 13:1-7 in the overarching context of Paul’s focus on genuine love in 12:9-13:10 is strengthened by his return to the topic of love in 13:8-10. After the sobering instruction to not rebel but to stay out of trouble and obey the governing authorities, Paul reminds his audience of the importance of love, not only of enemy (of which it could be strongly argued that the governing authorities were a subset!), but of neighbor.

This returns the Roman Christians’ focus to love as the central virtue of Christianity and the “fulfillment of the law” (13:8, 10). They were to faithfully follow Jesus the Messiah King, seeking to bring in his kingdom. But it was unthinkable to Paul to effect God’s kingdom in a way that ran against the grain of that kingdom of love, justice, and peace. Therefore, in the middle of exhortations to genuinely love one’s enemies and neighbors, Paul urges his audience to humbly obey their governing authorities so that they might remain faithful to their King’s calling as they went about his work in the city of Rome.

(For more on the book of Romans, check out my summary of the book’s argument/story.)

Conclusion

Through the ignorance of the historical background of Paul’s epistle to the Romans as a whole and his instructions in Romans 13:1-7 in particular, the passage at hand has been grossly mis-read and mis-applied in numerous ways since its original composition. Instead of an argument for unthinking obedience to, approval of, and participation in governments past and present, Paul here argues for the Christians in Rome not to revolt against the empire in an attempt to fully usher in God’s kingdom, but to submit humbly to the Roman authorities as they sought to overcome evil with good.

Having an understanding of both the historical background and the context of this passage in the overall argument of the epistle yields an appropriately nuanced view of Paul’s pastoral concern for his audience expressed in these seven controversial verses. Although it is tempting to take this passage out of context and use it to justify opinions on everything from immigration to just war theory, the same hubris that Paul implicitly rebukes in these verses must be resisted if the Scriptures are to be heard and appropriated well.

While some may wish that Romans 13:1-7 had more to say regarding the relationship between church and state, the passage certainly cannot say less than the main points briefly described above. Romans 13:1-7 is not a condensed theology of church and state, but a specific historically-conditioned pastoral address to the Roman believers, diverting them from rebellion and urging them towards humble submission in order to protect their testimony and thereby enhance their effectiveness in God’s redemptive mission.

(For a theological essay about what the Bible is and why it’s important, read this piece.)

Bibliography

(Links are affiliate links.)

Bray, Gerald, ed. Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture: Romans. Chicago: Fitzroy Dearborn Publisher, 1998.

Carter, T. L. “The Irony of Romans 13.” Novum Testamentum (BRILL) Vol. 46, no. Fasc. 3 (July 2004): 209-228.

Dunn, James D. G. Romans 9-16. Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1988.

Ehrensperger, Kathy. “A Subversive Reading of Paul: A Response to Stubbs, ‘Subjection, Reflection, Resistance’.” In Navigating Romans Through Cultures: Challenging Readings by Charting a New Course, edited by Yeo Khiok-khng (K.K.), 198-202. New York: T & T Clark International, 2004.

Kim, Seyoon. Christ and Caesar: The Gospel and the Roman Empire in the Writings of Paul and Luke. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2008.

Milliman, Robert. “Love and War: Romans 13.1 – 7 in the Context of 12.9 – 13.10.” November 13, 2011.

Moo, Douglas J. The Epistle to the Romans. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1996.

Schreiner, Thomas R. Romans. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1998.

Stein, Robert H. “The Argument of Romans 13:1-7.” Novum Testamentum (BRILL) Vol. 31, no. Fasc. 4 (October 1989): 325-343.

Stubbs, Monya A. “Subjection, Reflection, Resistance: An African American Reading of the Three-Dimensional Process of Empowerment in Romans 13 and the Free-Market Economy.” In Navigating Romans Through Cultures: Challenging Readings by Charting a New Course, edited by Yeo Khiok-khng (K.K.), 171-197. New York: T & T Clark International, 2004.

Witherington III, Ben. Paul’s Letter to the Romans: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2004.

Wright, N.T. Paul for Everyone: Romans: Part Two. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004.

—. Paul: In Fresh Perspective. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2005.

Notes

[1] A full analysis of the legitimacy of an anti-imperial Pauline hermeneutic far exceeds the scope of this study. Wright (2004: 82-88 and 2005: 69-79) emphasizes what he sees to be Paul’s anti-imperial themes throughout his writings, and I am indebted to him for the concept of Jesus’ vs. Caesar’s lordship. For an even-handed overview and analysis of this topic, consult Kim (2008), who makes the case that a strong anti-imperial Pauline hermeneutic is difficult to maintain. Despite Kim’s conclusions, however, it seems unwise to completely ignore the implications of Christ’s lordship on both Roman believers in the first century and on North American ones today. The fact that Romans 13:1-7 is such a stumbling block to those in the anti-imperial camp and such an “anomaly” when compared with the implications of Paul’s anti-imperial passages (such as 1 Thess 5, alluded to by Wright  [2005]) seems to necessitate a nuanced approach that hears the arguments of those on both sides of this theological debate.

[2] The commentaries and resources consulted in this study provided A.D. 57 as a consensus view of the date of composition of Paul’s epistle to the Romans.

[3] (Kim 2008: 37), who points to P. Stuhlmacher, Paul’s Letter to the Romans: A Commentary, trans. S. J. Hafeman (Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox, 1994), 198-208; J. A. Fitzmyer, Romans AB 33 (New York: Doubleday, 1993), 662-63. Also, consult Dunn (1988: 768-69).

[4] Ibid., 37.

[5] The background information in this paragraph comes from the helpful discussion in Witherington III (2004: 304-6).

[6] Consult the discussion in Kim (2008: 37) for a helpful counterbalance to the optimistic portrait painted by Witherington III (2004: 304-6). I am also very much indebted to the discussion as the source of the historical information in this paragraph.

[7] Cf. Witherington III (2004: 307): “That Paul could say very different and negative things about the state when the state was malfunctioning at the end of Claudius’ reign seems clear enough from 1 and 2 Thessalonians, particularly in 2 Thessalonians 2.” And also consider Wright’s (2004: 86) insistence that Paul had the ability to critique human government: “…in those stories (his visit to Philippi in Acts 16, for instance, or his trial before the Jewish authorities in Acts 23), that precisely when the authorities are getting it all wrong and acting illegally or unjustly Paul has no hesitation in telling them their proper business and insisting that they should follow it.”

[8] Passionate Aside: The main problem, then, in applying this passage today, is a very narrow vision of what God’s kingdom entails. That is, “obey your government unless it tells you to do something contrary to the Word of God” is a common enough teaching in the church today, but our vision of God’s redemptive mission is so emaciated that it causes us to miss glaring issues of concern (immigration, warfare, racism, etc.) in our society today. We rape the Scriptures when Romans 13:1-7 is used to justify such ignorance of and even the active participation in streams of society, culture, and policy which go against the grain of God’s kingdom.

[9] (Wright 2005: 78-79), emphasis mine.

[10] I am indebted to Dr. Robert Milliman and his blog-post Love and War: Romans 13.1 – 7 in the Context of 12.9 – 13.10 (2011) for the initial idea of examining this passage in its context to avoid mis-readings of the text which have been used to justify everything from totalitarian regimes to Christian service in the military.

[11] Schreiner (1998: 678) provides these examples of textual and conceptual links between the two passages. Dunn (1988: 758) also mentions the phrases ekdikew / ekdikoV (12:19; 13:4) and pantwn anqrwpwn / pasin (12:17-18; 13:7) to provide evidence for a link between the two passages, before demonstrating links between Romans 2:7-11 and 13:3-4 in order to refute the claims of some that this passage is a non-Pauline insertion.

[12] I appeal to Dr. Chris Miller’s class notes from BENT 4110 – Romans and Galatians (Spring 2012), and also Wright’s work on Romans (2004) to prove this point, for a complete discussion of this common theme exceeds the scope of this essay. However, for an overview of this theme in Romans, Dunn (1988: 705) cites Rom 1:16-17; 2:15, 17, 28-29; 3:20, 29; 4:16; 9:8, 12; 11:6, 30-32.

[13] Dunn (1988: 705) sees chapters 12-15 as providing a replacement to Lev 18:5 (“this do and live”) as the rule of life for the people of God: “…‘the walk in newness of life’ as over against the walk in the ordinances of Israel’s law (6:4), the service in newness of Spirit as over against oldness of letter (7:6), the obedience of faith in accord with the Spirit fulfilling the requirement of the law unconfused with Jewish ‘works’ (8:4).”

[14] Ibid., 706.

[15] All Bible quotations, unless otherwise noted, come from the NET Bible.

[16] Here I summarize my conclusions from “Historical Background” above.

[17] Schreiner (1998: 679) notes that there is considerable debate as to whether this refers to the eschatological judgment of God or to judgment imposed by earthly rulers. He appeals to the structure of the text (gar in 3a) to conclude that the latter option is more likely.

[18] Ibid., 680.

[19] I am indebted to Moo (1996: 794) and Schreiner (1998: 680) for this overview of the passage’s argument.