Seeing Differently (and Daniel Kirk's review of The Future of the People of God)

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I started out to write a response to some questions by Jim Hoag about my understanding of Romans 8 and then came across an excellent review of The Future of the People of God by Daniel Kirk. Since Jim’s comments and Daniel’s critique converge on the same issues, albeit from different directions, I will try to address both here.

Jim makes the point that to suggest that Romans 8 addresses the circumstances and destiny not of the ordinary Christian but specifically and pertinently of the early martyr community constitutes a “dramatic hermeneutical shift”. Indeed it does; and its implications, of course, reach beyond Romans 8. But is there any prospect of this reading gaining traction?

I appreciate that it is not easy to read the text in this way—the notion that Christianity is in all respects a universally relevant religion sustained by scripture as a universally applicable text is so deeply ingrained in us as modern rational Christians that we find it almost impossible to see the text differently—as a duck rather than as a rabbit.

The fact that theology—even at a popular level—has made considerable progress in the re-interpretation of Jesus as a figure whose significance derives primarily from his participation in the narrative about Israel rather than from some ahistorical, quasi-Gnostic, supposedly Pauline myth of redemption is encouraging. Why then should Paul not also be reinterpreted as a messenger sent out to tell the nations about the decisive participation of Jesus in a story about the people of God that has not only a significant past (Abraham, Exodus, kingdom, exile, the ongoing conflict with Hellenistic-Roman pagan power) but also a significant future (the Jewish war, pagan attempts to suppress the ambitious emerging Jesus movement, the conversion of the empire)? And then why should we not allow that the New Testament has realistic contemporary relevance specifically by way of this story?

To my way of thinking, I am simply pushing the New Perspective on Paul to certain inherent logical conclusions. It seems to me that we are under considerable scholarly but also existential pressure at the moment to pursue the realignment or reconnection of New Testament theology and history, and I think we are bound to ask the question whether Paul’s argument about the coming demonstration of God’s rightness, which is what Romans is all about, should be understood in the grounded historical sense that I have suggested. Moreover, since this is about both theology and history, we may find that the more significant support for this will come not from mainstream exegetically-driven Pauline scholarship but from sociologists and historians, or at least from the many scholars who are exploring the relationship between Paul and imperial ideology.

The limited response to The Future of the People of God that I’ve seen, however, suggests that the attempt to locate Romans within a historical narrative makes sense in principle but people are not at all sure that they can accept the theological implications. Which brings me to Daniel’s review….

The victory of YHWH over the nations

I made quite extensive use of Daniel Kirk’s Unlocking Romans in my book because I felt that his emphasis on the “particularity of Israel’s story” (5) was pushing interpretation in the right direction—just not far enough. An early point of disagreement—a hermeneutical cut-off point—had to do with the significance of a text such as Psalm 2:7-9 for understanding Paul’s assertion in Romans 1:3-4 that Jesus has been appointed “Son of God in power” by virtue of his resurrection.

I will tell of the decree: The LORD said to me, “You are my Son; today I have begotten you. Ask of me, and I will make the nations your heritage, and the ends of the earth your possession. You shall break them with a rod of iron and dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel.”

In his review Daniel raises both a general question about how Paul uses Old Testament texts and a more specific exegetical question regarding the means by which divine kingship with respect to the nations is established.

First the question of how far Paul has transformed Old Testament historical narratives into what we would recognize as a distinctly Christian and final narratives. This is obviously an extremely complex matter, but the basic problem that I think we have is that whatever climax is anticipated in Romans, it is presented i) as contextually delimited and bound up with the particular prospect of judgment on Israel (wrath against the Jew first, then the Greek); ii) as impending, as being a matter of immediate and urgent concern to the church in Rome and presumably to all the churches of the oikoumenē (cf. Rom. 13:11-14); and iii) as closely connected with the theme of the suffering and vindication of the community which identifies itself with the Christ who suffered and was vindicated.

So it appears we come back to an old dilemma: either Paul spoke about an imminent final event that did not materialize, or he spoke about a less-than-final event that did materialize. Since, historically speaking, the early centuries of the church, culminating in the conversion of the empire, were very much the story of the conflict between the God defined by Israel’s scriptures and the pagan nations, and since Paul relies heavily on Old Testament language that would naturally speak of such events, I am strongly inclined to go for the second option.

Secondly, Daniel maintains that Paul uses the motif of the subjugation of the nations to express Paul’s struggle to make sense of the fact that “God has brought the Gentiles in on equal footing–even if this might mean that the gods and lords of the nations will be brought low”. I wonder, actually, if this is so far from what I am saying. I think I would really just reverse the emphasis: the gods and lords of the nations will be brought low, and this will entail the inclusion of Gentiles in the people of YHWH. Paul uses the Old Testament language of YHWH’s victory over the pagan nations (and “wrath”, “judgment”, etc.) in order to express a coming victory of YHWH over the pagan nations on the novel basis of Jesus’ kingship; the inclusion of the Gentiles is not itself that victory but it is a sign of the impending demonstration of YHWH’s rightness and the means by which it will be achieved.

The resurrection of Jesus and the renewal of creation

The other major concern that Daniel raises has to do with the scope of the significance of Jesus’ resurrection—not surprisingly since this is a central theme of Unlocking Romans. My contention is that the significance of the resurrection of Jesus in Romans is argumentatively or narratively restricted—that it draws its significance from two particular themes: the conflict between YHWH and the nations, on the one hand, and the vindication of the martyr community, on the other. Daniel writes, however:

To my mind, the resurrection of Jesus creates a cosmic frame of reference for Paul’s eschatology that does not bear sufficient influence on Perriman’s framing of the eschatology of the letter. Hints in this direction include the groaning of creation to which human groaning and redemption are not only compared but also tied.

Now, in a sense, I would agree with this: the resurrection of Jesus has a cosmic frame of reference which is hinted at in Romans 8, and I have not allowed it to influence my framing of Paul’s eschatology in the Letter.

But my argument is that the cosmic and final aspect of Jesus’ resurrection is for the most part not directly relevant for the interpretation of Romans because Paul is dealing with sub-cosmic historical issues. It is understandable that from our perspective the cosmic aspect dominates our reading of the Letter; but it seems to me that we have been perspectivally misled regarding the extent to which the theme of resurrection in the New Testament is associated with the renewal of the people of God through suffering under conditions of “wrath”.

This is certainly the direction in which the background material points: the resuscitation of Israel’s dry bones (Ezek. 37), the raising of Israel’s righteous as an outcome of the conflict with the arch pagan ruler Antiochus Epiphanes (Dan. 12:1-3), the resurrection of Israel on the third day following punishment (Hos. 6:1-2), and the stories of the Maccabean martyrs. I think that the presentation of Jesus’ resurrection in the New Testament is in the first place and extension of this emerging trajectory—and that at critical points the community of those who have learned his way are written into the same story (consider as an example 2 Cor. 4:1-5:10).

But I do not think that the New Testament confines the significance of Jesus’ resurrection entirely to this martyrological narrative. Jesus’ resurrection by its very nature constituted an ontological novelty that raised the possibility of cosmic transformation and renewal in an unprecedented way—so Paul imagines creation itself discerning in the story of Israel’s restoration the potential for its own liberation from corruption and death.

I think that the New Testament is too preoccupied with more pressing matters to explore this dimension in depth, but it is there at the margins. As we pursue the narrative direction, we arrive at this ultimate possibility of transformation by way of the concrete story of the community’s experience of renewal and vindication through a Christ-like faithfulness in the face of pagan aggression. This concrete story of renewal is the “eschatological salvation” that Daniel finds missing from the book. But Paul is intensely conscious of the fact that this salvation will require an extreme faithfulness on the part of, for instance, the believers in Rome who will soon face a day of acute suffering when they will have to “put on the Lord Jesus Christ” in imitation of his faithfulness.

Jim Hoag | Thu, 12/02/2010 - 19:04 | Permalink


Thanks Andrew, huge encouragement.

You said, “the notion that Christianity is in all respects a universally relevant religion sustained by scripture as a universally applicable text is so deeply ingrained in us as modern rational Christians that we find it almost impossible to see the text differently—as a duck rather than as a rabbit.”  

Today it seems being able to hear, at least in part, depends on “volume” and volume often appears to be about prominence or the POPULAR FAMILIARITY of a particular hermeneutic rather than its coherence, credibility and veracity. The Christian tradition apparently lost its vital connection with the Jewish interpretive matrix in which Paul lived and moved some time ago. Paul seemed to be remaking the minds of his readers by teaching them to interpret their lives in light of an eschatologically interpreted scripture. In this regard, tradition has left us with many blind and deaf spots. But if popular familiarity brings more “volume” to those deaf spots, then let there be more scholars, writers and authors like yourself pumping out more and more material to produce an ear splitting hermeneutical sound.