Exegetical Exercise

Saint Paul, by Rembrandt

“What then are we to say about these things?”

There are two texts in the Uniform Series selection for Sunday, April 23: Romans 5:6-11 and Romans 8:31-39. These are my notes on those texts:

Background: Romans is one of Paul’s later letters, usually given a date in the late 50s CE; the longest letter (that’s why it’s first in book order, which is longest to shortest); arguably the most famous (Basis of how many evangelism tracts? How many memory verses come from Romans? How many super-famous commentaries on Romans, like Karl Barth’s, or even Giorgio Agamben’s The Time That Remains? How many famous heretics – now I am thinking about Marcion – want to reduce the Bible to any other book?); addressed to the church in the capital of the empire of its day. Longer and later both suggest that Paul had had time to work out his theological thinking, and was treating it in more detail, and that squares with the way the letter reads. It arguably works as a very short introduction to Reformed theology, for that matter.

The first nine chapters, excluding the usual salutations, thanksgiving, and a summary of the theme of the letter (1:16-17 “For I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith; as it is written, ‘The one who is righteous will live by faith.’” (cf. Habakkuk 2:4)), are a step-wise, developed theological argument that goes from the originally innate character of moral knowledge and relationship with God, and the consequences of the suppression and transgression against all that by all of humanity (namely, death and, we expect, divine wrath), to the gift of peace, or reconciliation, from God to humanity secured through the Jesus Christ’s death on behalf of humanity, a gift of peace which is made accessible and effective through faith, and which enables the faithful to die and be reborn with the crucified and risen Christ to a new life in the Spirit which conquers death in every way. So  – big finish – “nothing can separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:39) Sunday’s texts are little elements of that much longer argument.

Romans 5:6-11, First impression: What is “the right time?” (v. 6; might be in the sense of “the appointed time”) – but what makes it the right time, or why was that the appointed time? (I’m curious about this.) The subject of most of the sentences is “we,” and these verses turn out upon inspection to be mostly about our career: we were weak and sinners (6, 8) in fact we were God’s enemies (10), but have been justified, and will be saved (9, 10 – will be saved repeats) and have been reconciled and have received reconciliation (10-11) – some form of “reconciliation” occurs 3 times in those last 2 verses. God really, really wants to make up with us. “Christ died” occurs twice. God does one thing: “synistésin God’s love,” which NRSV translates “proves” but RSV & CEB translate “shows” and the analytical guide suggests something like “commends” or “introduces,” so God does not exactly “prove” God’s love deductively, but maybe inductively through demonstration and encouraging us to draw our own further conclusions based on that.

Where is the Trinity in these verses? Possibly v. 8, “God proves/shows/commends His love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.” In v. 10 Christ is “his Son,” but in v. 8 Christ might be more closely identified with God. Would God commend “his” love for us by having someone other than “him” die for us? This seems like an important question, but I am not entirely sure about the answer – I am thinking about the movies: sometimes we think a protagonist loves another character because they sacrifice themselves in some way, but sometimes we are convinced a protagonist loves another character because they rescue them and in the course of that rescue guarantee that someone else goes down instead, and the plot may make us willing to accept that substitution (even in the absence of informed consent, which is a little disturbing of a fact about “us”).

We also “boast” in God (v. 11) – another Greek verb translated differently in different versions, sometimes it becomes “rejoice” or “exult” – maybe if we thought along the lines of a sports team hoisting a trophy, or the mvp on the teams shoulders, and claiming “bragging rights” we would be close to what Paul means.

Paul’s reasoning in vv. 8-10 seems to go something like this: since God demonstrably loved humanity enough to pursue peace with them, to the point of the death of Christ, which is presumably something God participates in for the purpose of producing this outcome, at a time when humanity was basically lost to God, then God will definitely be favorable to a humanity that has been restored. If God was willing to, in effect, make a peace treaty with God’s enemies by means of the death of Christ, God will definitely save this newly-allied humanity by means of the life of Christ, which we assume must be even more desirable to God than Christ’s death. As I read it: this whole project cost way too much to be allowed to fail, so now that it is starting to look like it’s working we can count on it being made to succeed. [The main point: “we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ,” Romans 5:1]

Romans 8:31-39 – the climax of a whole chapter that is a lot of people’s favorite set of Biblical texts, a kind of summation to the jury (if it turned out to be a jury of our bff’s).

God and Jesus Christ are the main subjects. God is for us (v. 31), does not withhold his Son, gave him up for us, will give us everything else (v. 32), justifies (v. 33); Christ died, was raised, is at the right hand of God, intercedes for us (v. 34); all these actions by both actors are presented as being taken on our behalf and for our benefit.

Paul is pulling out all the rhetorical stops. In a series of rhetorical questions, he effectively asserts that “we” have no grounds whatsoever for thinking that anything we suffer reflects God’s hostility towards us, or has the power to negate God’s love for us, and that implied “nothing whatsoever” includes a lot of extremely negative concrete experience (hardship, distress, persecution, famine, nakedness, peril, sword – i.e., war?). Then “we” turn up again as subjects of a predicate: hyper-conquerors, “more than conquerors” (v. 37), and finally Paul affirms that he is personally convinced

… that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:38-39)

The notion of God’s peace with us in ch. 5, and the use of “enemies” language, and then in ch. 8 the use of “more than conquerors” all makes me wonder whether there are echoes throughout all of this of military and political practices and expectations that would have been familiar to the citizens of the ancient world … but with a twist, because it seems to me that “enemies” would either become placated enemies – if confronting a weaker enemy – or conquered, annihilated or subdued enemies, if confronting a more powerful enemy – and which kind of enemies “we” are seems … confusing; God is more powerful than “we” are, Christ dies (and rises again), we become no longer enemies and “more than conquerors” … subject to lots of hardship that basically doesn’t faze “us” at all … I just think some of Paul’s rhetoric here may work a reversal of expectations in its original cultural context, and that  it might be harder for us to notice that after a couple of thousand years of Christian “when I am weak then I am strong” socialization.

These texts got kind of personal for me. Sometimes I wonder where I get the idea that we have this ready access to God, that we can “just” open up a chat line, so to speak, whenever, and have this attitude that God is very close and accessible; I didn’t used to question that, but after studying religious traditions that treat God as much much more transcendent, and which require very formal mechanisms of approach due to God’s transcendent holiness – and Christian tradition doesn’t dispute the Christian God’s transcendent holiness, either, so, I have started to question my assumptions. But then, reading these texts, I think: well, here it is: “we have peace with God,” “this grace in which we stand,” etc. … this sense that God’s main characteristic is God’s openness to humanity is so core to this Pauline theology. So at least I see where I get it from.

My focus statement: “In the face of hardship and affliction, we may be tempted to conclude either that God is our enemy, or that we are losers. The Apostle Paul concludes, rather, that having unbreakable peace with God, hardship and affliction are simply weather in the victorious new life of the Spirit.”

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About HAT

Heather Thiessen (HAT) is a happily married 60-ish, Bible-reading, Presbyterian Church Sunday School teaching and choir singing, small fuel efficient car driving, still pretty much 2nd wave feminist and generally out lesbian Hoosier mom. (There are no monochrome states.) From time to time she teaches religious studies to students at a small liberal arts college in Louisville, Kentucky.
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