J. Louis Martyn on God’s Invasion

“The Father of Jesus Christ is emphatically not a god who, after offering two ways, withdraws off stage in order to assure an autonomous decision on the part of the human agent. Precisely the opposite. This God comes invasively and causatively, inciting faith where there was none. We may take the apostle quite literally when we hear him speak of the genesis of the newly moral community, identifying it from its inception forward as God’s new creation, for as God’s new creation this community owes both its birth and its sustained life to God’s powerful act in the gospel and to nothing else.”

– J. Louis Martyn, “The Gospel Invades Philosophy” in Paul, Philosophy, and the Theopolitical Vision, p.33.

The End of Time?

I have just returned from SBL’s Annual Convention and as always it was a great time. Caught up with old friends, met new friends, and even put a few faces to cyber-friends.

Even though the main reason I make the annual trek is the people, there is another part of the conference…the papers. And as always, I heard really good papers, good papers, and others.

One paper I was really looking forward to this year was Ann Jervis’ “Christ and Time” and it did not disappoint. Last year at a conference at Princeton, Dr. Jervis gave what she called a preliminary look at “Paul’s Understanding of Time” and since it was a smaller conference I had the privilege of discussing the ideas with her at length (a great reason to attend at least one smaller conference each year). When I saw she was going to be giving a paper on the topic at SBL, I knew it would probably be a highlight of the conference.

In her paper, Dr. Jervis offered a critique of the Pauline Apocalyptic School’s view of time (see Paul’s Apocalyptic Imagination). She focused on three points of difference:

  1. The End of Time: According to Jervis, contrary to what many in the apocalyptic school assert, time will not end (or in some cases has not ended). What Paul does say will end is death, and in the defeat of death time will be drawn together so it may be seen more clearly. In other words, there is no last day in Paul just a last day for death to disrupt time.
  2. Time and Eternity: Jervis also concludes that eternity is not a distinct Pauline category. In her view, time and eternity are not different ages; there is not a moment when time stops and eternity begins. She is not claiming that life will not reach into eternity but that eternal is a qualification of life. Eternal life, according to Jervis, is the nun kairos lived without death and therefore without sin.
  3. Christ Changes Time: Finally, Jervis based her claims in the fact that Christ connects time with life not death. For those in Christ, time is now invaded (a play on common apocalyptic motif) by life. Death gives way to life and so there is no end of time, life is lived eternally “in Christ time.”

Dr. Jervis ended by illustrating that time is often seen as the story of conflict in humanity’s relationships with each other, creation and God. She stated that if this is your definition then time will certainly end. But in her view time is not a story about conflict, that is the result of sin and death’s disruption of time, but a story about relationships. Thus, when in Christ humanity’s relationships with each other, creation, and God are restored so is time; time is eternal.

I find the discussion of time in Paul fascinating, especially since so many rely on the now-not yet paradigm when interpreting Paul without ever defining what now and not yet mean. In this manner, I appreciate Dr. Jervis’ efforts to define time by Christ and in particular to struggle with this very complex topic.

(One further note, one questioner asked how, in her view, does God relate to time? This was a very good question and one I look forward to hearing her answer as she continues to ponder on “Christ Time”)

A [Just] War for Romans 13: Towards a Nonviolent Reading

“The text has disappeared under the interpretation.” – Friedrich Nietzsche

Romans 13:1-7 has a long and rich history as the classic biblical prooftext for the justification of lethal violence.  The “classical interpretation” goes something like this: the state has divine authority to inflict violence and go to war in order to punish evil and work for peace.  Such an interpretation is axiomatic to most Christians, who find it hard to even imagine that the passage might mean anything significantly different.  But what if Romans 13:1-7 does not justify Christian participation in violence?  While such an idea is difficult for many to even entertain, I’ve found the interpretive work of recent anti-imperial scholars and Christian pacifists [such as N.T. Wright and John Howard Yoder] to be just the catalyst needed to push my reading into a more faithful direction.[1]

One of the most significant decisions for one’s interpretation lies in how they understand the Greek participle tetagmenai translated as “instituted” [NRSV, ESV], “ordained” [KJV], or “established” [NIV].  This participle form of tasso is the same root verb used for the command to be “subject” (upotassestho) earlier in verse 1 and might be better understood as “arranging in an orderly manner.”  In fact, “ordered” is the gloss that Yoder argues for while Wright renders the participle “have been put in place.”[2]  The difference in decisions is subtle, yet important.  It is a question of direct divine involvement and moral approval.  Yoder compares God’s work here to that of a librarian: “The librarian does not make the books, does not write them, does not necessarily approve of them, but simply puts them in order.”[3]

Here is another way to approach the same issue: is the proper Old Testament background to these “governing authorities” the theocratic nation of Israel or the foreign empires of Assyria and Babylon?  The difference in one’s decision is again very important.  Many believe that since God directly commanded some of the wars of Israel that he also morally approved of them.  However, the relationship between God and the actions of Assyria and Babylon is a little more nuanced throughout the Bible.  Wright locates the conceptual background of this passage in Old Testament texts such as Isaiah 10, Isaiah 44, and Jeremiah 29.[4]  These texts speak of the providential sovereignty of YHWH over the foreign rulers of Assyria, Persia, and Babylon. Yoder thus argues that just as YHWH used the human evil of Assyria and Babylon for his good divine purposes, so Romans 13 is “an affirmation of providence overriding human rebellion, not ratifying it.”[5]  While God, in his providence, fit the Assyrian and Babylonian empires into his plan of redemption, he in no way morally legitimized the actions of these governing authorities.  Likewise, if read in this way the text does not grant moral authority to the governing powers but simply reassures believers of God’s divine, if not mysterious, sovereignty.

This understanding fits in nicely with the historical context of the passage.  It is important to remember that at this point in history the Christian community was on the outside looking in when it came to participating in government.  Rome was no modern liberal democracy and the early Christians did not feel the affinity for their government that is so common to current Westerners.

In turn, these decisions help clarify the apparent contradiction between Romans 12:9-21 and Romans 13:1-7.  As Stanley Hauerwas puts it, you simply must not read Romans 13 without first reading Romans 12.  Indeed, a close reading should take note of the fact that there is an interesting “verbal interplay around the concepts of vengeance and wrath” in the immediate literary context of Romans 13.[6]  For instance, Romans 12:19 instructs Christians to never exercise vengeance but to leave it to God.  Paul then describes the governing authorities of v. 1 as the ones who execute this role, a role that he has clearly excluded Christians from.  Yoder believes that “this makes it clear that the function exercised by government is not the function to be exercised by Christians.”[7]  Paul doesn’t directly address the issue of Christian participation in government, but it should be fair to say that he most likely wouldn’t exempt believing government officials from the universal commands of Romans 12.

When read in this way, Romans 13 does not contradict the non-violent statements made by Paul in Romans 12 or by Jesus in the Gospels.  Paying close attention to 13:6-7 helps us in this regard.  Many scholars believe that Romans 13:6-7 refers to the temptation to revolt against oppressive taxes that existed in Rome in the first century (which might make for an interesting understanding of America’s founding).  This would make Romans 13 say basically the same thing that Paul had already told them in Romans 12, but now applied to the specific context of the Roman government: Christians should not repay evil with evil, but should overcome evil with good.[8]  As Yoder says, “Romans 12-13 and Matthew 5-7 are not in contradiction or tension.  They both instruct Christians to be nonresistant in all their relationships, including the social.  They both call on the disciples of Jesus to renounce participation in the interplay of egoisms which this world calls “vengeance” or “justice.”[9]  Or again, “The call [of Romans 13:1-7] is to a nonresistant attitude toward a tyrannical government.  This is the immediate and concrete meaning of the text, how strange then to make it the classic proof for the duty of Christians to kill.”[10]

It is time for the text to reappear over the interpretation.  In a violent world, it is time for Jesus’ people to undertake a [just] war for biblical texts, like Romans 13:1-7, that have been commandeered to support political theories fundamentally at odds with the message and hope of Christ.

What do you think?
Are you convinced that it is possible to read Romans 13 in a nonviolent way? 


[1] This post is a shortened version of a paper I read at the 2013 Regional SBL/AAR conference in Dallas, TX.  The paper was a comparison and evaluation of Augustine’s reading of Romans 13:1-7 with the reading of N.T. Wright and John Howard Yoder.
[2] Yoder, Politics of Jesus, 201-202; Wright’s The Kingdom New Testament: A Contemporary Translation.
[3] Yoder, Christian Attitudes to War, Peace, and Revolution, 329.
[4] Wright, New Interpreters Bible Commentary on Romans, 718.
[5] Yoder, Politics of Jesus, 198.
[6] Ibid.
[7] Ibid.
[8] Wright, NIB Commentary on Romans, 720: “The methods of the Messiah himself [Romans 12:14-21] must be used in living out his kingdom within the present world.”
[9] Yoder, Politics of Jesus, 210.
[10] Ibid., 202-203.

Thought Leaders in Pauline Scholarship?

Mitch Joel on his blog had interesting post on Thought Leaders. This is an excerpt from the post…

Who really is a thought leader?

Pushing beyond semantics, a thought leader is someone who is sharing…their own unique perspective. That would be the “thought” component of the equation. A thought leader is someone whose unique perspective is seen and accredited by both peers or other industry experts as truly being visionary…Leadership isn’t just about being first. Leadership is about how the thinking is ingested and used by the audience…Thought leadership is sharing the vision, having the vision being accepted by the industry at large and having that vision become a part of the DNA and how that industry moves forward.

Given this description who are the real ‘Thought Leaders’ in Pauline scholarship?

Framing and Interpretation

In Michael Bird’s Four Views On The Apostle Paul, for my brief review see here, each of the authors was asked to give their thoughts on, “What is the best framework for describing Paul’s theological perspective?” And in my opinion, one of the most interesting things about the book was examining how influential each author’s answer to this one question is on their overall reading of Paul.

Without going into detail, here is my view of their answers to the framework question:

1. Tom Schreiner – the now, not yet nature of Paul’s gospel (he also refers to as prophecy fulfilled (now), mystery revealed (not yet))

2. Luke Timothy Johnson – a balance of religious experience (Paul’s and his readers) and cultural heritage (Jewish and Greco-Roman)

3. Douglas Campbell –   revealed (revelation as the basis for Paul’s thinking on God), triune (the Trinity as the God who is revealed), missional (Paul is called to participate in the loving mission of God)…the primary focus is revelation (Greek apokalypto)

4. Mark Nanos –  Paul (who never left Judaism and continued to be Torah observant) wrote from the viewpoint that because the Messiah had come the new age had come (the addition of the non-Jews was the sign of the coming)

Now lets look at how two of authors perceives the overall objective of Paul (obviously grossly understated) and how I think the framework plays a major role in determining their perception:

1. Tom Schreiner – Christ-Centered and Cross-Focused: Schreiner starts with defining the problem – sin, judgment, wrath and beginning with grace shows how humanity’s salvation (reversal of the problem) is secured in cross. Schreiner’s account focuses on the what has been done and I believe this arises mainly from his now, not framework (must focus on the now, especially given the not yet is seen as mystery). I think this accounts for, what I would consider to be a weakness in Schreiner’s account, the lack of attention given to resurrection. It is not that the resurrection is completed neglected, but since it falls in the realm of not yet (at least for all except Jesus Christ) it gets treated as a secondary issue. I would not want to suggest that Schreiner actually believes the resurrection is a secondary issue, only if one decides to work within the now, not yet framework this is a natural (necessary?) result.

2. Luke Timothy Johnson – Rescue from Death: Johnson focuses on Christ’s rescuing humanity from alienation from God (death) and giving us a share in the life that is distinctive to God. While he agrees with Schreiner that there is now, not yet quality to this life, he believes Paul focuses on “in-between-time” of salvation where Christians are to conduct themselves in manner worthy of calling. This leads to an interesting distinction which I believe flows out of his framing of Paul’s thought. For the Johnson, the cross is crucial because there is tension between cross (history) and resurrection (experience) and in his account, the cross becomes the hermeneutical key to reinterpreting Torah, God’s gift, etc. While the cross is certainly hermeneutical, is it not also more than that? This is where the interaction between experience and heritage becomes the lens to understanding Paul, and reveals how his framing plays a crucial role in how he reads Paul.

Campbell’s revelatory and Nanos’ Jewish expectation viewpoints could be analyzed the same way, but for the sake of time (my time that is!) I think these two show how important framework is for interpretation. Framing is found in all interpretation, and I am not suggesting we need somehow to leave framework behind, just that we need to be conscious of how frameworks influence our readings.

That is why I found it so interesting in this book, the authors had to explicitly state their framework along with their interpretation. With the frameworks there for all to see, their influence became obvious. And it led me to think,

Am I aware of my own framework for interpreting Paul? Could I write it down for all to see and analyze?

Can I see the influence my framework is having on my interpretation (both good and bad)?

Does my framework so override my interpreting that the text is never allowed to question it?