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Archive for September, 2011

“Paul is saying [in Romans 8] that what the Spirit does in us is to draw us into a relationship, a loving relationship into which we are adopted as children of God.  This relationship is the relationship between Jesus and his Abba or Father.  As the Spirit brings Christ’s life to birth in our life, we find ourselves sharing with Christ in the most central and characteristic aspect of his life–namely the relationship that defines him and marks him as God’s beloved child, his relationship with God as the loving source of his whole life.  And more wonderfully yet, we find taht we do not remain mute observers of this relationship, but that the Spirit actually teaches us the very language of Jesus’ conversation with the Father.  The Spirit puts Jesus’ words of loving adoration and trust in our own hearts and makes it possible for us to speak them ourselves.

…This experience of Paul and the early Christians is the basis of our understanding of God as Trinity, as a ‘conversation’ taking place between Jesus and the Father in their Spirit.  We will look more closely at this in the next chapter on the mystery of the Trinity.  In my own view, the growing recognition within the Christian community that something unbelievable was happening to them marks the birth of Christian theology: the community was being plunged by the Spirit not just into Jesus’ life, but into his relationship with the Father.  The Spirit who animates Jesus’ relationship with the Father is no alien force; the Spirit is God as relationship, as the love who draws Jesus to the Father and the Father to Jesus.  And because it is this same God the Holy Spirit who comes to dwell in the church’s life, we too are drawn into Jesus’ life of relationship with the Father.  In fact, we could even say that the Spirit is this relationship between the the Father and the Son, that that the Spirit is the power, the loving energy of the Speaker’s speaking of the Word.  And this divine speech comes, by the Spirit’s power, to break out in our life as church at Pentecost.

…The Speaker speaks the eternal love and that love, being divine and infinitely living, takes form and sound and shape, is eternally the living Word of that living Speaker.  And not content simply to enjoy this conversation between themselves, the Speaker and the Word, the Father and the Son, bring a universe into being as a term of endearment, a phrase in their eternal dialogue of love.

It is this conversation, so vast and awesome and beyond our imagination’s grasp, that God desires to have us join.  Indeed, we were created for that very purpose, created to be a pungent, peculiar, prickly but much-loved part of speech, created to participate in the communion which is God’s very life…The Holy Spirit draws us into Jesus’ life and fills us with his longing for the Father…We begin to learn this language by which Jesus and the Father converse, and to enter into their communion, their life.  The One who draws us into their mutual giving life, the One who teaches us to cry out in their language, is God again–God the Holy Spirit, who has from eternity been the love who draws the Speaker into speech, and fills the Word with yearning to speak the Speaker’s Meaning, to do the will of the Father.

…In our world, the loving joy of the divine self-communication (theology) takes the form of being sent by the Father, being led by the Spirit, and giving ourselves freely in love into the hands of others–both divine and human…If we come to live more theologically, then the rhythms and cadences of this language of divine self-communication will also become more natural, more native to our life.  As we become more native speakers of theology, the language of God’s life, we find ourselves able to communicate with reality ever more deeply, to sense something of that communion of love that the whole universe is created to enjoy.  And it is the momentum of this divine communion, set loose in us through fellowship with Christ, that transforms our understanding, reconciling us to those we find difficult, breaking down walls of division, sending us into night shelters, turning us into chefs in soup kitchens.” (Mark McIntosh, Mysteries of Faith, pp. 15-21)

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How did the early Christians begin to make sense of the Trinity?  They saw that this new encounter with God was not the same as meeting God in three different roles or activities, just as I can be the celebrant at the eucharist, the coffee hour host, and an exasperated  parent all on the same Sunday morning.  For them the Trinity was not a divine game of peek-a-boo in which a playful deity peeps out at them from behind different masks (now the ancient fellow with the beard, now the infant, not the bird, and so on) until God tires of the whole charade.  No, when these Christians met God they were swept up into God’s own inner life of mutual relationships.  The Word who becomes incarnate and the Spirit who moves over the chaos of human hearts are not temporary patch-up efforts on the part of a bumbling deity who had not quite counted on human recalcitrance.  Instead, Word and Spirit are eternally enacting the communion who is God, and into this communion Christians are drawn.  For the Father is never just the Father, but eternally delights to pour himself out, give himself away in the ‘othering,’ the speaking, of the Word.  The delight that draws the Father beyond simple oneness toward Another is the same love, the same Spirit, who likewise draws forth from the Word an eternal response of loving self-surrender to the Father.

God is love.  In that powerful statement, Christians have come to understand that God is God through relationship: the communion of Lover, Beloved, and Enrapturer.  Just as Christians grow into the fullness of who they truly are through their lives together, the relationality of God is precisely who God is.  In other words, it is through the eternal loving and self-giving of one to another that the Persons of God are Persons.  The Father pours out the divine life to the Son, the Son speaks and embodies this life, and the Spirit brings both together in passionate delight and love.” (Mark McIntosh, Mysteries of Faith, pp. 31-32)

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“There can be few documents, if any, which have had more study concentrated on them than the Epistle to the Romans…That this tradition is so rich, that the Epistle to the Romans has drawn to itself so many commentaries, is certainly not surprising in view of the important part which this document has played in the history of the Church and of Christian life and thought.  As the most systematic and complete exposition of the gospel that the NT contains, it has naturally seemed to have a very special place in the Bible…The recognition of the special importance of Romans is no peculiarity of Protestantism.

The student of the epistle who consults but a single commentary is perforce involved to some extent in a conversation not only with St. Paul but also with this long exegetical tradition; for every reputable commentary carries a great deal of this tradition–even if the commentator is himself largely ignorant of the more distant sources of the things which he says.  But to gain something more than an altogether superficial knowledge of the course of the tradition is to learn a deep respect and affection for, and gratitude to, those who have labored in the field before one, irrespective of the barriers between different confessions, theological and critical viewpoints, nations and epochs; to learn to admire the engagement with Paul’s thought of some of the greatest minds from third to the twentieth century, but also to be humbled by the discovery that even the weakest and least perceptive have from time to time something worth while to contribute; to learn that it is naive to imagine that old commentaries are simply superceded by new ones, since, even the good commentator, while he will have some new insights of his own and will be able to correct some errors and make good some deficiencies of the past, will also have his own particular blind spots and will see less clearly, or even miss altogether, some things which some one before him has seen clearly; and, above all, to learn that all commentators (including those who in the next few pages will be most highly praised and also–and this is perhaps the most difficult lesson for any commentator to grasp–oneself) have feet of clay, and that therefore both slavish deference to any of them and also presumptuous self-confidence must alike be eschewed.

[In a footnote, Cranfield cites Maurice Wiles’ Divine Apostle: ‘We have come to the end of our study and the question that immediately arises in our minds is the question ‘How far then did the early commentators give a true interpretation of Paul’s meaning?’  Yet the very form in which the question arises is not without danger.  It implies the assumption taht we have a true interpretation of Paul’s meaning–or at least a truer one than that of those whom we have studied–in the light of which theirs may be tested and judged.  It may be so; but we as much as they are children of our own times and there may well be aspects of Pauline thought to which we are blinded by the particular presuppositions and patterns of theological thinking in our own day.  If therefore we seek to pass judgment on other interpreters it can only be in the recognition that we also stand in need of judgment, even and perhaps especially when we are least conscious of that need.’]” (C. E. B. Cranfield, Romans 1-8, pp. 30-32)

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The Narrative Identity of God

  “Fire.  God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob, not of the philosophers and the scholars…”  (Pascal, November 23, 1654)

For my money, one of the most undeniably significant insights of modern biblical scholarship is the increasing recognition of “narrative” as central to genuinely Christian thought about God.  I do not want to go too far and critique ALL older theology that is more systematic, abstract or propositional in nature, as many today excel in doing.  Wisdom was not born with this generation–can we at least be clear on that?  And narrative theology has its own dangers, not the least of which is the temptation to flee from realism and actual history when talking about “story”.  Yet, with that disclaimer put forth, I do think the recovery of “narrative” in contemporary theology holds forth great promise for a renewed, deeper, and ultimately richer understanding of the Scriptures.

Listen to this provocative suggestion:

“Influenced as it has been by the Greek philosophical tradition, the church throughout the centuries has often articulated an understanding of God under heavy influence from Plato’s god of ideal form and perfect moral goodness and from Aristotle’s unmoved mover.  We thus find Augustine [in Confessions] asking, ‘What, then, are you, O my God?’ and giving a list of attributes that includes ‘Most high, most excellent, most potent, most omnipotent…unchangeable, yet changing all things; never new, never old.’  In the medieval period, Anselm’s Proslogion seeks to prove the existence of a God whose definition is of the same ilk: ‘that being greater than which cannot be conceived.’  Centuries later, we find the British Reformed tradition [i.e. Westminster Confession] giving this definition of God: ‘What is God?  God is a spirit; infinite, eternal, and unchangeable in his being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness and truth.’  Not only do these Christian definitions, like their Greek philosophical counterparts, all focus on a g/God who is wholly other, they also define God in universal terms without reference to the story of Israel.  In the Scriptures of Israel, however, God’s identity is inseparable from a particular people and from certain actions performed on behalf of that people.  God is not known in universal abstract qualities but in limiting and particular actions.  The question of the Scriptures seems to be less What is God? but rather Who is God? or perhaps Which God?  The God of Israel is known through that God’s commitment to and actions among a particular people…The God of Israel’s Scriptures is the God who, though Lord over all things, has chosen to disclose himself and make his name known to the world through one particular people.” (J. R. Daniel Kirk, Unlocking Romans: Resurrection and the Justification of God, pp. 1-2)

Let me be blunt: this is a brilliant nugget in what it affirms, but unhelpful in what it denies (or at least ascribes to past generations of Christian thinkers).  Kirk’s book  as a whole strikes me as a typically modern overreaction against Augustine and Luther and Calvin–after all, “narrative” is not the sole possession of the 21st century, lest we forget who penned this claim:

“This gospel of God or New Testament is a good story and report, sounded forth into all the world by the apostles, telling of a true David who strove with sin, death, and the devil, and overcame them, and thereby rescued all those who were captive in sin, afflicted with death, and overpowered by the devil. Without any merit of their own he made them righteous, gave them life, and saved them, so that they were given peace and brought back to God. For this they sing, and thank and praise God, and are glad forever, if only they believe firmly and remain steadfast in faith.” (Martin Luther, LW 35:358)

Luther (and most Christian theologians throughout history) knew that the gospel is ultimately a story about what God has done in Christ, and any “abstract” or “systematic” theologizing was done by them within this larger framework.   Any other claim is pure historical revisionism. Furthermore, there’s quite a bit of discussion in both the Old and New Testaments that would fall under the same hammer Kirk wants to swing at Western theology.  But…it is also the case that, concomitant with the move away from modernism into postmodernism, our ears are becoming slowly more attuned to the centrality of “narrative” for understanding God and our role in the world He has made.  On that theme, Kirk is dynamite and provides a helpful corrective to other kinds of extremes.

A further trend in much scholarship today is the growing awareness that human identity cannot ultimately be understood or defined apart from history…that is, our actual lived lives.  Our stories.  If someone asks me to describe my wife Kasey to them (and they have never met her), and I reply by saying: “Well, she’s intelligent, funny, athletic, beautiful, humble…”, the result would not be true knowledge of who Kasey really is.  In fact, that would be spectacularly unhelpful.  BUT if I told you a number of personal, true stories from her life experience, that “narrative” would embody these qualities and make them vibrant to you.  What Kasey has done and experienced plays an intimate role in who she is today.  And thus for you to know her, you cannot skip around her history.

So it is with God Himself.  Biblically, God is defined primarily by what He has done in salvation history–that is, by how He has acted in relation to Israel and the Church and most of all, in Jesus.

“For Paul, the question who God is can best be answered by reference to what God does—just as, in a narrative, a character may be individualized by reference to significant actions within a specific history rather than through immanent attributes or dispositions. Divine being and divine action are inseparable from one another, and no distinction is drawn between how God is in se and ad extra.” (Francis Watson, “The Triune Divine Identity: Reflections on Pauline God-Language, in Disagreement with J.D.G. Dunn,” JSNT 80 (2000), p. 105)

In Romans 4, God’s identity is fleshed out in three statements that are descriptive of how He acts in the world.  To have “faith” in Romans 4 (which brings righteousness!) means to believe in and trust this God.  The object of faith determines the subjective, pyschological makeup of that same faith.  Faith means relating to Him as the One who has done (and continues to do) these things.

So who is God according to Romans 4?

God is the Onewho justifies the ungodly” (4:5)

God is the Onewho gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist” (4:17)

God is the Onewho raised from the dead Jesus our Lord” (4:24)

The significance of this narrative identity of God for Christian faith cannot possibly be overstated:

“It is noteworthy that while Paul never reduces God to a function of human faith, Romans 4 is exclusively concerned with God ad extra, with God as he is to be believed in…for Paul in Romans 4 human faith is inseparable not only from God, but also from God understood in a certain way.  For Paul there is no true human faith that is not faith in ‘the God who justifies the ungodly’ (4:5), ‘the God who gives life to the dead and calls non-entities to be entities’ (4:17), and finally ‘the one who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead’ (4:24)…It is an essential pre-requisite of faith that it is faith in such a God.” (Simon Gathercole, Justification and Variegated Nomism, Vol. II, p. 165)

If I read Paul aright, his argument in Romans 4 is that this God who has now revealed Himself in Jesus’s death and resurrection is the same God who called out Abraham and gave him promises–in spite of, to be sure, the rejection of this Messiah by so many children of Abraham.  In Abraham’s story, God was the one who justified the ungodly, and he was the one who gave life to the dead and called into existence the things that are from the things that are not (i.e. creation ex nihilo).  This same God has now raised Jesus from the dead–and by giving life to the dead once more, He has once and for all justified the ungodly (4:24-25).  Paul’s point is clear: of course this is the same God, the redeeming Lord whose narrative identity was splashed all over the pages of the Hebrew Scriptures in Israel’s story.  Raising Jesus from the dead and justifying ungodly Gentiles is exactly how you would expect Him to act at the end of the ages, if you are reading the Old Testament Scriptures rightly.

So the death and resurrection of Jesus define, for Christians, the core identity of God.  God–for us–is the one who handed Jesus over to be crucified, who raised him from the dead, and who has subsequently installed this risen Jesus at His right hand as Lord over all.  Deny this and, simply put, you are talking about another God.  I’ll leave the last word to Robert Jenson as he unapologetically lays out what which distinguishes Judaism and Christianity ever since Jesus came on the scene (hint: it’s not primarily different “attributes” of God, as if the prospect of Jews and Muslims and Christians all signing off on the same list of divine attributes would mean we all worship the same God.  What we fundamentally differ over are the acts of God in history, along with their specific interpretation and meaning for the community of faith):

“To the question “Whom do you mean, ‘God?’” Israel answered, “Whoever got us out of Egypt”.  The gospel of the New Testament is the provision of a new identifying description for this same God, that this new description comes to apply is the event witness to which is the whole point of the New Testament.  The content of the gospel is that God can now be known as “whoever raised Jesus from the dead” ‘ (Robert Jenson, The Triune Identity God According to the Gospel [Philadelphia Fortress Press, 1982], pp 7-8)

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Three Rhetorical Questions

Paul’s closing doxology in Romans 11:33-36 is a rousing hymn celebrating the supremacy of God over both history and human beings.  The capstone to his majestic, complex argument in Romans 9-11, here we find the apostle Paul at last concluding his defense of God’s righteousness not so much with one final knock-down argument from logic but rather with an exuberant exultation in the sheer greatness and goodness of God.  Such is the language that faith speaks.

When the reader arrives breathlessly at the finish line of Romans 9-11, the apparent counter-evidence that has previously managed to land the Creator squarely in the dock of human judgment–namely, Israel’s massive rejection of her promised Messiah and the corresponding influx of despised Gentiles into the pews of the 1st century churches–has now at last been unveiled for what it really is.  Indeed, this strange turn of events possesses a significance in the designs of God that no one could have postulated or guessed in advance.

The unbelief of Israel turns out to be a tragic yet divinely-orchestrated (and thus ultimately gracious) peg in the global outworking of God’s dogged pursuit of the everlasting welfare of His people.   On behalf of this beloved Israel, which in Christ is now understood to consist of both Jew and Gentile, Paul has labored to reveal the stunning mystery that both the bitter (the hardening of the zealous Jewish people, except for a remnant) and the sweet (mercy on the couldn’t-care-less Gentiles) curves of history are conspiring together in God’s grand design for the salvation of the whole world.

Paul boldly recruits Job and Isaiah to give poignant expression to the voice of faith when it is confronted with the apparent failures of God.  The Scriptures, after all, are filled with just such moments of crisis in the lives of God’s people.  Job 38-42 (prompted by the protagonist’s mysterious suffering) and Isaiah 40:12-31 (prompted by the devastating prospects of exile in Babylon) are two of the most memorable.  Especially fitting for Paul’s mood is that the divine reply to both scenarios was of the “Who are you, O man, to answer back to God?” variety, just as Paul himself earlier retorted to his hypothetical interlocutor.  Instead of specific answers in these cases, we hear only of the uniqueness, freedom and grandeur of the only wise God as it is explosively brought forward against all would-be challengers, against the usurpers who dare to assert both their own righteousness (non-existent though it be, or at least irrelevant) while simulataneously calling God’s into question.

This, of course, is not the only kind of response the Scriptures give to human perplexity.  But from time to time we stand in need of being reminded of the sheer Godness of God, and that He is not obligated to answer every query we put to Him, regardless of the motives from which they spring or the hubris they manifest.  Not knowing absolutely everything is part and parcel to what it means to be a human being, to be a creature (incidentally, perhaps we have not wrestled enough with texts like this or this?).  Predictably enough, the heirs of Adam have still not managed to get past wanting to be like God.

Yes, one day the righteousness of God will be publicly and demonstrably vindicated in plain view of the entire universe.  With shut mouth and humbled heart, every human being will acknowledge in hindsight that God has done all things well.  Christians must never lose sight of this fact, even if they do not now grasp how this can possibly be so.  We tremble with anticipation at the prospect of knowing fully, just as we are fully known.  Nonetheless, it is a stubborn fact that in this present evil age ten thousand catastrophes come to pass in our lives that join together in casting a plausible shadow of doubt upon this conviction.  Those whose predominant orientation in life is walking by sight must inevitably waver and, ultimately, despair.  The dictates of reason cannot produce the doxologies of Paul, though ironically such songs of praise prove to be eminently reasonable once all the facts are in.  This accounts for the curious fact that faith is never found to be in conflict with intelligence in the Scriptures (contra a whole line of modern atheists), but only with arrogance.  For it is a humbling thing to be forced to admit the drastic limitations of all creaturely understanding of reality and, with nowhere else to turn, take desperate refuge in the sovereign wisdom of the Lord.  But not a foolish thing.

Like Alyosha, we do not yet have the answers to Ivan’s fierce questions.  Let us freely admit it.  Pretending helps no one here, and ruins many.  But there is a world of difference between not yet possessing all the answers, and there simply not being any answers (of course, there are bad answers too).  Faith insists on this distinction, in spite of its mocked status in the eyes of the those who seek to cheaply collapse these two categories into one nihilistic excuse for banishing the claims of God upon our existence.  If we are to learn anything from passages like Isaiah 40:12-31, Job 38-42 and Romans 9-11, it is to gladly give the benefit of the doubt to God even in the most dire situations, and not to our contextually-limited questions or know-it-all complaints.  Even if we have literally no idea how God will show Himself faithful once more in any given circumstance, the death and resurrection of Jesus prove that He can be trusted even in the absence of such information.  His track record is perfect, even if still incomplete.  I am not advocating fideism.  Just faith.  And God’s past resolutions of past conundrums–many of which could not have been calculated in advance, remember–are sufficient for the stance of faith in the present as it navigates between the beginning and the end.

It is only those who live by faith who can acknowledge the intrinsic rightness of the ways of God ahead of time, well in advance of the Last Day and the satifsying clarity it will afford to those who have longed for it (a sterling example of this attitude is found in I Peter 5:6-11):

“[F]aith means trusting in advance what will only make sense in reverse.  Fifty years casts another light on marriage; the century looks different from a grandmother’s view.  And I believe that human history will take on a new look from the vantage point of eternity.  Every scar, every hurt, every disappointment will be seen in a different light, bathed in an eternity of love and trust.  Not even the murder of God’s own Son could end the relationship between God and human beings.  In the alchemy of redemption, the most villainous crime became a day we now call Good Friday.” (Philip Yancey, Finding God in Unexpected Places, p. 178)

And no doubt, it must be said, this long wait of leaning hard on the hidden God is often accompanied by desperate tears, tears which are not inimical to unwavering trust in His faithfulness.  Nor is such godly weeping to be despised by any who tread the same paths.

For the sake of my fellow sojourners on this dark, unsettling road, I offer a few reflections on Paul’s three rhetorical questions drawn from Isaiah 40:13 and Job 41:11.  These prophetic questions aim to heal our crippling unbelief and to remind us of the unique position that the Most High God inhabits in our world of human evil and human suffering, a truly unrivaled position that we tend to constantly forget or ignore in practice.  I fear that we do no pose these strategic questions to ourselves with nearly enough regularity.  We waste the Scriptures.  I hope you will take the time at some point to read the surrounding contexts in which they arise.

(Note: these three questions correspond, in reverse order, to the three qualities that modify “depth” in 11:33–that is, the first question expounds upon God’s knowledge, the second upon God’s wisdom, and the third upon God’s riches.)

1.) “Who has known the mind of the Lord?”

God is infinite and perfect in His knowledge.  We are not.  Can we even begin to imagine what tiny, minute fraction we possess of the exhaustive knowledge He enjoyed (and, of course, still does) when He laid the plans for human history before the foundation of the world, in full awareness of every contingent factor and causal consequence that would come to pass, for good or for evil?  Moreover, not only is it the case that we not do not know all that God knows, but even in the things which we do know we still do not see the why of it as God does, nor that to which it presses.  Yet implicit in every critique of God’s goverance of His creation is the denial of these things, and the assertion of our superior perspective of both the parts and the whole.

In his private notebooks, Jonathan Edwards recounts a conversation he once had with a young child who bristled with incredulity at Edwards’ mathemetical persuasion that a cube two inches long on each side can be cut into eight pieces that are each equivalent to another cube a mere one inch shorter on each side.  At first glance, this simply seems impossible to the child (and, perhaps, to us!).  A moment’s reflection in the abstract proves the truth to a person trained in the basics of geometry, but visually this was jarring to the boy.  Of course, once all things are considered, the initial evaluation is exposed as unreliable.  Edwards goes on to say that if you multiply that amusing situation by about infinity, you arrive roughly at the actual difference between our perspective of any given reality and God’s knowledge of it.  If an infant cannot possibly be expected to comprehend the quantum theory of Einstein, how much more do our naive ruminations pale in comparison to the vast insights of the Maker of everything?  Indeed, to go one step further,

“There is a difficulty about disagreeing with God.  He is the source from which all your reasoning power comes: you could not be right and He wrong any more than a stream can rise higher than its own source.  When you are arguing against Him you are arguing against the very power that makes you able to argue at all: it is like cutting off the branch you are sitting on.” (C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, p. 48)

Think about it.

2.) “Who has been His counselor?”

We intuitively recognize the absurdity of expecting a wise and powerful leader of any given nation to first ask for the permission of naive, unlearned teenagers before embarking upon complicated courses of action.  How ironic that we should then turn around and, in practice, expect the same treatment from God!  Do we really think that God ought to ask us for advice before He commits Himself to the enactment of His strategies in history?  Would any of the untold number of satisfying blessings and joys in my life have turned out nearly so well if I had, a priori, insisted on it as a rule of thumb that God first seek my counsel and approval before He pursue His loving designs?

I doubt, of course, that many of us really expect God to regularly postpone what He is doing in order to ask for our advice or our permission beforehand.  Yet how frequently does our incessant grumbling betray that we do, in fact, expect it of God?  Think about it.

3.) “Who has ever given a gift to Him, that he should be repaid?”

God is rich in kindness and mercy.  The riches of His glory on behalf of His people are limitless, inexhaustable.  Even more, He owns everything by virtue of creation and redemption, and therefore He needs nothing from us.  We must confess that we, on the other hand, stand shamefully exposed as morally bankrupt in every conceivable way.  How, then, do we manage a straight face before Him and before others when we astonishingly assume the position before God of giver, of doer, of owed, rather than of beggar, recipient, and debtor?  How utterly different would our lives and our attitudes be if we were really convinced that everything that has ever happened and will ever happen to us is ultimately a gift from the God of all grace?  How much of our discontentment, rage and whining flow out of hearts that perceive our deserving to be greater than our reception, instead of hearts so transformed by the gospel that we freely confess that we have received far more than we deserve (the opposite, in fact)?  Could anything be more blatantly counter-cultural in Western society today than a community of believers who are more obsessed with the rights and freedom of God than with those of, well, us?

Listen to Martin Luther’s stinging analysis of our real problem in life:

“This evil is planted in all human hearts by nature: If God were willing to sell His grace, we would accept it more quickly and gladly than when He offers it for nothing.” (What Luther Says: An Anthology. Ed. by Ewald M. Plass, Volume 2, p. 604)

Karl Barth agrees:

“The greatest hindrance to faith is again and again just the pride and anxiety of our human hearts.  We would rather not live by grace.  Something within us energetically rebels against it.  We do not wish to receive grace; at best we prefer to give ourselves grace.” (Dogmatics in Outline, p. 20)

“Everything is grace,” exclaims Bernanos’ dying hero at the conclusion of Diary of a Country Priest.  He must have read Paul.  Think about it.  And then sing.

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“The overarching theme of Romans is the righteousness of God (Rom. 1:17)…The ‘righteousness of God’ in Paul transcends its ‘rabbinic’ interpretation of Torah-keeping.  It reaches back to its prophetic and apocalyptic formulation (cf. Second Isaiah and Qumran) and radicalizes it.  It denotes the victory of God and his cosmic act of redemption.  God’s ‘righteousness’ in Christ not only acquits the sinner but also abolishes the power of sin by transferring us to the dominion of the lordship of Christ.  And because the law is allied with the power of sin, righteousness must necessarily be ‘apart from the law’ (Rom. 3:21).  Righteousness, then, refers to our new free access to God in faith and in the Spirit as ‘children of God.’  Because it signifies our new relationship to God, it also means life in the domain of righteousness, which extends into the eschatological future (Gal. 5:5).  The righteousness of God is ‘power for salvation’ (Rom. 1:16), the gift of salvation and ‘the domain of salvation’ (2 Cor. 5:21; Gal. 5:5; Rom. 10:10: ‘righteousness’ = ‘salvation’), which inaugurates the apocalyptic destiny of the creation.  To live in that domain means to live as righteous people, that is, to be ‘upright’ (dikaios) and to conduct one’s life in obedience to the norms of the new world (Rom. 6:16-23).

According to Ernst Kasemann, the ‘righteousness of God’ has a consistent apocalyptic meaning.  As God’s eschatological salvation power, it claims the creation for God’s lordship and sovereignty that the Christ-event has proleptically manifested.  Bultmann and others contest the apocalyptic unitary meaning of ‘the righteousness of God.’  Bultmann maintains that the genitive case in the term ‘the righteousness of God’ is a genitive auctoris (or an objective genitive) rather than a subjective genitive (Kasemann).  According to Bultmann and others, ‘the righteousness of God’ is not an attribute of God but a gift from God, that is, a righteousness bestowed on people before God in Christ.  Herman Nicolas Ridderbos, for example, points to Rom. 2:13, 3:20, 10:3, and Phil. 3:9 and states, ‘Righteousness is not a divine but a human quality and the nature of that quality is specified by the righteousness of God, as righteousness which is valid before God.’  This claim is supported by Paul’s formulations: ‘before God’ (2:13) and ‘in his sight’ (3:20).  Moreover, because in Rom. 10:3 and Phil. 3:9 ‘the righteousness of their own’ and ‘of myself’ is antithetical to ‘the righteousness of God’, the forensic, eschatological aspect of righteousness as God’s justifying gift cannot be denied.  It should be noted, however, that Paul’s metaphors interact with each other, so that the idea of righteousness as forensic acquittal (Rom. 2:12) flows over into a broader field of meaning, where righteousness is a life-giving power and a new domain.  Thus, the apocalyptic meaning of ‘righteousness’ as life in the new age transcends in Paul, as well as in Qumran and in other apocalyptic literature, its rabbinic referent as forensic judgment and gift.  Because righteousness in Paul has both ontological cosmic and interpersonal dimensions, it describes our new being in Christ as our obedience to his lordship.  Thus, Paul’s hermeneutic of the lordship of Christ is based on the apocalyptic dimension of the term ‘righteousness’; it is both God’s gift of salvation and his power that will encompass his whole creation.

The phrase ‘the righteousness of God’–which Paul uses only in Rom. 1:17, 3:5, 21, 22, 25, 26, 10:3, and Phil. 3:9–transcends the category of of acquittal and personal relationship because it points to that order of cosmic peace and salvation that has been proleptically manifested in Christ and that discloses itself in our obedience to his lordship (Rom. 6:16-23).

Although the righteousness of God (and his verdict of justification) constitutes Paul’s original hermeneutic of the Christ-event, it is not his only hermeneutic or the master symbol.  In other words, ‘original’ means first in order of time, not necessarily in order of importance.  Each symbol interprets a different aspect of the one lordship of Christ that marks God’s imminent triumph over evil and death…Jesus Christ is the pledge of God’s imminent cosmic triumph, and thus faith in Christ is able to bear the tension between our confession of God’s righteousness and our empirical reality in the world…Paul unfolds the righteousness of God as God’s grace.  Both metaphors interpret the indicative of the Christ-event, which is the sole object of faith.  And faith celebrates the faithfulness of God in Christ in the midst of its suffering in an as yet unredeemed world.” (J. Christiaan Beker, Paul the Apostle: The Triumph of God in Life and Thought, pp. 92, 262-64, 69)

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“Believing in God is not enough.  Everything depends on the God in whom one believes and to whom one entrusts his or her life.  Paul saw this clearly.  The Christ-event, centered in Jesus’ death and resurrection, revealed God decisively and thereby uncovered the character of the human situation as well…Paul did not, and could not, fit the Christ-event into the understanding of God he inherited.  Rather, his encounter with Christ compelled him to rethink everything from the ground up (which is not to say he repudiated his heritage).  As E. P. Sanders noted in Paul and Palestinian Judaism, Paul did not work out his theology as a solution to a set of problems with which he had been wrestling unsuccessfully…

One of the most radical understandings of God in the NT cannot be found in a concordance because the term ‘God’ is not used–namely, the one ‘who justifies the ungodly’ (Rom. 4:5)…[This expresses] Paul’s keen awareness that the cross and resurrection reveal the disparity between God and the prevalent understandings of God.  The Christ-event disclosed the God one can really count on because it made clear God’s committments and his capacity to keep them, God’s moral integrity…

‘The moral integrity of God’ is not Paul’s phrase, of course; it restates the point of a phrase which he did use–the righteousness of God…Although Paul wrote Greek, his meanings are derived from the OT and its understanding of right, righteous, and so forth.  The Hebrew term [‘righteousness’], and its various forms, refers to a relationship, to a norm, not to an inherent quality that we might call ‘righteous’ or good.  Righteousness is rightness.  The specific meaning of righteous/righteousness depends on the norm in view…To be [‘righteous’] is to keep faith with what is right, with what is the right thing to do for the persons involved…To justify is to rectify the relation to the norm; justification is rectification.

It is one thing to speak of human relationships to a norm, but does it mean to speak of the ‘righteousness of God’?  By what norm is God to be judged?  And who is the judge of the matter?  Or does ‘righteousness of God’ means something quite different from the righteousness of a person?  The meaning of ‘righteousness of God,’ especially in Paul, has been debated vigorously in recent years.  On the surface, the debate has been over a grammatical point–how to take ‘of.’  But the issues at stake are far-reaching.

Ernst Kasemann has challenged (more…)

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