Sunday, March 27, 2011

Commentary on Scripture: Romans 4

Do we then nullify the Law through faith? May it never be!  On the contrary, we establish the Law.

Romans 4:1-22 ~~ A long digression on the nature of Abraham's righteousness (with particular reference to Genesis 15:6), similar in content to Galatians 3:6-7, as well as Hebrews 11:8-19, though in sharp contrast with the text of James 2:21-24. Two brief thoughts on the passage as a whole. First, having established justification "by faith apart from the works of the Law," Paul is strongly interested in rooting this doctrine in the very soil of the Law itself.  Second, the contrast between Romans and James should remind us to avoid atomistic interpretations of Scripture. We are often tempted in exegesis to trim the infallible Tree, to prune away difficult passages and to graft more accessible doctrines onto those now-barren limbs. If anything, let us dive head-first into paradox, so we might understand the insight captured in these inspired texts.

Romans 4:2 ~~ "If Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God." There can be no pride in our own salvation, for we were not the cause of it, and indeed could do nothing prior to the divine initiative of grace.

Romans 4:4-5 ~~ "Now to the one who works, his wage is not credited, as a favor, but as what is due." Salvation, taken as the initial moment of justification, is not 'due' in any sense to us. However, the passage does indicate that the wages of works are indeed credited as our "due," even as the rewards of faith are credited as righteousness.

Romans 4:6-8 ~~ Righteousness (blessedness) is for the forgiven sinner. This quote in particular serves as a Scriptural basis for Luther's maxim "simul iustus et peccator" (both justified and sinner), and does seem to point towards the later Protestant concept of 'imputed righteousness.'

Romans 4:9-12 ~~ Abraham was deemed righteous prior to his circumcision, in accordance with his faith. Therefore, Paul reasons, righteousness cannot be exclusive to circumcision, if only because such an understanding would disqualify Abraham.

Romans 4:11 ~~ "...the sign of circumcision, a seal of the righteousness of the faith which he had while uncircumcised...." Both circumcision and baptism, its typological counterpart in the New Covenant, may be seen as seals of righteousness from the moment of conversion. However, failure to affirm the covenant by obedience -- circumcision, the sacrifice of Isaac (cf. James 2:21), the Law, the sacrament of baptism -- would invalidate the original covenantal relationship.

Romans 4:14 ~~ "If those who are of the Law are heirs, faith is made void and the promise is nullified" (cf. Galatians 3:17). Those who receive the Law are neither exclusively nor assuredly heirs in the family of God (cf. Romans 2:13, Galatians 3:29).

Romans 4:15 ~~ "The Law brings about wrath, but where there is no law, there also is no violation." This may well be cited as one of the more notorious and difficult anti-legalistic passages in the Pauline epistles, as well as a startlingly strong confirmation of the principle of judgment according to knowledge (though again, balance with Romans 2:15) . Paul maintains that the Law (greater revelation) entails wrath and judgment, for it reveals our state of sinfulness, and may even exacerbate actual sin by acting as a proximate cause on our rebellious natures.

Romans 4:17-18 ~~ These verses are fairly difficult. My NASB translation reads: "God, who gives life to the dead and calls into being that which does not exist," but marks in footnotes that the original literal read goes: "God, who gives life to the dead and calls the things who do not exist as existing." In one sense, this is decidedly a reference to the risen Christ (as well as his typological forbear, Isaac). It also hearkens to the doctrine of creation ex nihilo, perhaps even in the Aristotelian sense of God as "unmoved mover" or "first cause" (as developed by Thomas Aquinas). We shouldn't forget that Paul, in addition to his apostolic office and divine inspiration, was also something of a genius.

Romans 4:19-21 ~~ The life of faith is one that contemplates the obstacles and doubts of this world (e.g., Abraham's frailty and Sarah's infertility) without growing weak or wavering in reliance upon God. Faith enables strength and thanksgiving. Paul correlates our faithful reliance on God with our hopeful assurance in His promises and His power to perform them).

Romans 4:25 ~~ Jesus "was delivered over because of our transgressions, and was raised because of our justification." This verse seems have been taken from an early Christian confessional or doxology. I find this verse particularly interesting, because it treats the Resurrection (not the crucifixion) as the primary salvific event for our justification. This seems to correlate more closely with a Catholic/Orthodox understanding of "infused" or "imparted" righteousness, as well their teachings regarding the sacrament of baptism, which may almost been treated as a vicarious 're-enactment' of Christ's death and resurrection.

I've recently done some reading on the Anglican bishop and theologian N.T. Wright, who is one of the major theological movers of the "New Perspectives on Paul." This lecture summarizes some of the "central issues" that are foundational to his exegetical framework. While I lack the education or exegetical experience to sit in judgment over his works, I find Wright's contributions to be quite impressive, both in balancing the excesses of certain doctrines and in drawing us into a fuller understanding of the Scriptural text. His summary of 'justification' (which concludes the lecture) has been especially valuable in reading Romans.  What's more, Wright's arguments strike me as largely unoriginal -- which, in my book, is an unmitigated good. If no one in the past two millennia had thought of this interpretive gloss, that would be much more cause for concern than if such a reading were rooted in arguments from the orthodox tradition.

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