Loving God: August 2008 Archives

Jubliee of St. Paul Romans 1:21-26

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Fore note: This has been a particularly difficult segment to write and so any comments, clarifications, or helps would be much appreciated. Before I felt like I was wading into warm tropical waters, but in this passage, it feels like I've taken that next step and wound up plunged into the tongue of the ocean.

from the Letter of St. Paul to the Romans (DRC)

21 Because that, when they knew God, they have not glorified him as God, or given thanks; but became vain in their thoughts, and their foolish heart was darkened. 22 For professing themselves to be wise, they became fools. 23 And they changed the glory of the incorruptible God into the likeness of the image of a corruptible man, and of birds, and of fourfooted beasts, and of creeping things. 24 Wherefore God gave them up to the desires of their heart, unto uncleanness, to dishonour their own bodies among themselves. 25 Who changed the truth of God into a lie; and worshipped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed for ever. Amen.

26 For this cause God delivered them up to shameful affections. For their women have changed the natural use into that use which is against nature.

from the Letter of St. Paul to the Romans (KJV)

21Because that, when they knew God, they glorified him not as God, neither were thankful; but became vain in their imaginations, and their foolish heart was darkened.

22Professing themselves to be wise, they became fools,

23And changed the glory of the uncorruptible God into an image made like to corruptible man, and to birds, and fourfooted beasts, and creeping things.

24Wherefore God also gave them up to uncleanness through the lusts of their own hearts, to dishonour their own bodies between themselves:

25Who changed the truth of God into a lie, and worshipped and served the creature more than the Creator, who is blessed for ever. Amen.

26For this cause God gave them up unto vile affections: for even their women did change the natural use into that which is against nature:


In Greek

I have broken the passage here to avoid too long a reading; however, it might be good to read to the end of the chapter and come back to take these verses in context, this is the beginning of one form of argument that St. Paul uses throughout the letter.


Okay, so today we begin to encounter the St. Paul in the presence of whom I always felt terribly uncomfortable as a protestant. This is a raving, railing, ranting St. Paul, who fulminates and casts into Hell all that he does not care for. This is the St. Paul of those who would judge others and condemn them to Hell despite the strong injunction not to do so. In short, this St. Paul exists only in the perfervid imaginations of those who have fallen under the spell of a certain way of reading the Bible.

But this picture of St. Paul is a caricature, a distortion, a slander of a great man with a great heart. And, in all likelihood, I may have been the only person to have ever encountered this fictitious (and factitious) St.Paul.

These verses, and those that are to follow shortly, are commonly amongst those used in the argument against homosexuality. For a gay-friendly analysis of these verses and those following is available here, I am dubious about some aspects of this argument; however, I did like the notion introduced of St. Paul as ironist. I'm not sure that he is exhibiting that tendency here, but it helps to make St. Paul more human and humane.

We recall from yesterday that the previous passage ended with "So they are without excuse." Who? Those, who knowing God and His glory choose to bow before created things rather than worshiping the Creator. I don't know that St. Paul condemns all paganism with this assault, although he may well be doing so; however, he is certainly condemning the Dionysian cults that seem to worship and revel in darkness and in vain animalistic pursuits. I have this small doubt about the complete condemnation of all previous practice because of the power and skill of an argument presented elsewhere that depends upon the Altar to and Unknown god.

So, let's leave aside for the moment whether this passage is meant to be a blanket condemnation of the entire pagan world and its thinkers and look instead as to what the real sin is, because it is this consequences of this sin that Paul will delineate in the passage subsequent to this.

The specific problem is delineated in verse 21--when they knew God, when they saw His Glory, rather than praising that Glory and extolling that greatness, they extolled themselves and darkened their own imaginations. They had seen the power of God and they ended up seeing nothing at all but their own reflections. They could not praise Him or give Him glory and so they became puffed up. Thinking themselves wise, they became fools--they were filled with their own ideas and their own desires--their glimpse of God pushed them solidly back into themselves. And this is a natural tendency. If we think of the Apostles at the Transfiguration, the first thing they want to do after witnessing such a marvelous event is build some tabernacles. They, at least, had a worthy thing in mind to build. Not so with many of the pagan cults. They instead choose to make graven images of Dionysius, Mithras, and other even darker entities. They see the sun and choose to transform it to suit their own purposes. (Sounds rather uncomfortably familiar, doesn't it?)

When they did this they incurred the penalty of their sin in their own bodies. For example, the celebration of Cybele left too many men incapable of contributing to the future of the race. Other cults had even darker rites.

When we see God and ignore Him, consequences naturally follow. Paul attributes them to God's wrath and perhaps that is simply a metaphorical way of saying that sins carry with them their own retribution. Take our modern era with the "sexual revolution" of the 60s. The consequences of that horrendous social experiment are with us today as we contemplate the election of a man who will do his uttermost to assure that the slaughter of the innocents can continue unabated in the name of rights that simply do not exist.

While Paul was writing of the depraved pagans of his time, his message holds true for us today. When we choose to ignore God and recreate Him in our own image, we will be serving a horrible god at a terrible price. I won't go so far as to say that it happens daily, but I think it is fair to say that daily we see the consequences of such service in the world around us.

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It probably comes as no surprise to you that the composition of these reflections is both a pleasure and a challenge. When I put a great deal of thought and effort into them, I am half amused and half uneasy with the resounding silence about them. Amused because I know that my reaction would likely be the same; uneasy because I fear I may have gotten something wrong and I am conceivably misleading. So perhaps each of these should come with a caveat--read with pleasure, but be certain to think through on your own. I am now up to my fourth reflection on this cluster of verses, and I am loving the slow read of Romans that it forces me to do. Additionally, I am enjoying the reading I need to do in addition to come to some understanding about what these words mean. Struggling with the writing of St. Paul is a way of becoming more familiar with him--the sullen, self-centered, raging, towering, block of anger that I understood St. Paul to be from my days as a Baptist is vanishing to be replaced by a careful, thoughtful, ironic, and sometimes amusing teacher, a man deeply in love with Jesus Christ and deeply desiring that everyone around him should come to know Jesus in the same way. I hope that in some small way, working through this letter helps you to know St. Paul better and to appreciate this Jubilee year dedicated to him. If not, I hope then that at a minimum the tears of boredom clear up rapidly enough to read the next blog. God bless you either way.

At long last, I have come to the three verses that I really wanted to jump in and start talking about. This is the first intimation of a stream that will flow throughout the letter to the Romans. Indeed, it may be well considered the Christian headwaters of much Catholic theological and philosophical thought. (I say Christian headwaters because, obviously, this is a tradition that must stretch back in the Judaism, but I am unfamiliar with the line of reasoning prior to this writing by St. Paul. St. Paul, we must keep in mind, like Jesus, was a consummate Jew--a man who observed the law and witnessed and approved the martyrdom of St. Stephen.)

from Romans 1:18-20 (RSV)

[18] For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and wickedness of men who by their wickedness suppress the truth.

[19] For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them.
[20] Ever since the creation of the world his invisible nature, namely, his eternal power and deity, has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse;

(NIV)

18The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness, 19since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. 20For since the creation of the world God's invisible qualities--his eternal power and divine nature--have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse.

There are times in the Epistles that one needs to leave the lovely but sometimes thorny garden of DRC and KJV and enter into more readily comprehensible translations of the same ideas. While the RSV is approved for liturgical use and study, the NIV occasionally offers insights, however, I am not certain that the bias of the translators does not sometimes infiltrate the text and I use it cautiously. But I use it here because, while I am not a Greek expert, from consultation with the Greek Bible, the NIV seems to be a "more accurate" interpretation of the verses. In verse eighteen the chief verb appears at the beginning of the sentence and in the parsing of the Greek Bible it is designated as a "third person singular prest passive indicative" Thus "is being" seems slightly more in line with the thought--"is being" is more passive than "is revealed." Why all of this concern over a verb? In this case the passive voice strengthens the thought that the revelation of God in this way did not stop with the Incarnation or the revelation of Jesus Christ, but it is an ongoing act of revelation that comes as a grace from God to every generation. He is revealed through His works for all to see or not. We can will to be blilnd, but the revelation will be there nevertheless, and the revelation acts as prosecuting attorney. Because God chooses to reveal Himself in this way there is no excuse for one going to Heaven to say that he could not know God. It is entirely likely that a person might have good excuse for not knowing Jesus Christ as revealed in the Bible--there may have been no one to preach, no one nearby who knew the good news. However, Jesus Christ is the culminating and fulfilling revelation of God the Father who graciously continues to reveal Himself in His creation. Now, unfortunately, what is being revealed to all is the wrath of God against those who will not know him. I don't know the particular circumstances that Paul might be thinking about with regard to this, but we might say the same thing today. The wrath of God (which cannot be separated from either the love of God or the Mercy of God, as they are all attributes of a simple and undivided whole) is being revealed today in ways that if we were only to open our eyes we could see. For example, the weakness of our Christian faith is revealed in the choice of leadership we are being given in the next election. It is revealed daily in the crime, vandalism, and exploitation of the poor that goes on each day. These are not God's signs of displeasure with those who are affected, but the natural "wrath" that develops from making choices that do not concur with God's will. As we instruct our children--there are consequences to our choices and we must be willing to live with those consequences if we are willing to take advantage of the choices.

Paul will go on in verses to follow to describe some of the ways in which God's wrath is being revealed, but the main point of the three verses presented here is that the wrath is being revealed against a people who do not only not accept Christ, but who refuse to understand God despite the fact that from the beginning of Creation God has made himself manifest to everyone.

What is startling here is the line of thought that says that a person ignorant of religion, ignorant of Christ, ignorant of all the trappings of civilization, may still know God. God is revealed in the book of creation just as he is revealed in the Word. The specificity of that revelation is less than the fullness of Christ, but it is nevertheless clear and those who refuse to see it have no excuse. In short, all people can know God through his Creation., and this creation reveals God's will. This is Paul's answer, and the Catholic answer to the question, "Can an Atheist have a reasonable ethics?" Yes, if he is attentive to God's revelation in natural law, even while ignoring the fact that it is revelation. Natural Law is a sure sign of God--a clear message that anyone can and must see and obey. There is no getting around it--God and His will are made manifest in the smallest events that occur in the world.

This is one of the primary building blocks in the construction of a Catholic, Christian theology--God may be known through the use of the gift of reason applied to the revelation implicit in the natural world. Faith can be built upon and supported by judicious use of reason under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Catholics have long held this belief, which is why it is so confounding and obnoxious to hear the Catholic Church (although not individual Catholics) being accused of anti-intellectualism. The Church is indeed the mother of the prudential use of reason in coming to know and understand God. Her saints (from St. Paul on) have consistently taught this, and it is this line of thought that supports and reifies the authority of the Magisterium to interpret scripture and indeed the events of the everyday.

If St. Paul had given us no other gift, this was one of the very finest he could have blessed us with--the gift of reason used in defense of and support of faith. Faith and reason do not require compartmentalization of the human person, rather together with the Holy Spirit, they allow for the complete integration of the human person. Is there any wonder that Pope Benedict wanted us to spend some time reflecting on this great Saint and his gift to us in the Epistles?

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from the Letter of St. Paul to the Romans (DRC)

16 For I am not ashamed of the gospel. For it is the power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth, to the Jew first, and to the Greek. 17 For the justice of God is revealed therein, from faith unto faith, as it is written: The just man liveth by faith. 18 For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and injustice of those men that detain the truth of God in injustice: 19 Because that which is known of God is manifest in them. For God hath manifested it unto them. 20 For the invisible things of him, from the creation of the world, are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made; his eternal power also, and divinity: so that they are inexcusable.

from the Letter of St. Paul to the Romans (KJV)

16For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ: for it is the power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth; to the Jew first, and also to the Greek.

17For therein is the righteousness of God revealed from faith to faith: as it is written, The just shall live by faith.

18For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who hold the truth in unrighteousness;

19Because that which may be known of God is manifest in them; for God hath shewed it unto them.

20For the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power and Godhead; so that they are without excuse:


In Greek

Having handily dispatched verse 16, we're now ready to tackle the remainder of the passage. One is impressed by how much can be garnered from pondering this letter even with a limited knowledge of all of the scholarship that has poured into understanding the letter in its entirety. It is both encouraging and logical that a person today who wishes to read Romans and think about it for a while can understand much of what is said. One need only recall that the letter was originally written to a group of people who had nothing like a profound theology.

Before we launch fully into what follows--thorny and difficult going at best and filled with the potential traps of misinterpretation, it might be good to record one famous theologians thoughts on the Letter to the Romans.

from Preface to Romans
Martin Luther

This letter is truly the most important piece in the New Testament. It is purest Gospel. It is well worth a Christian's while not only to memorize it word for word but also to occupy himself with it daily, as though it were the daily bread of the soul. It is impossible to read or to meditate on this letter too much or too well. The more one deals with it, the more precious it becomes and the better it tastes. Therefore I want to carry out my service and, with this preface, provide an introduction to the letter, insofar as God gives me the ability, so that every one can gain the fullest possible understanding of it. Up to now it has been darkened by glosses and by many a useless comment, but it is in itself a bright light, almost bright enough to illumine the entire Scripture.

[See the translation of the whole here.]

And so, here I am to again darken it with glosses, or perhaps offer a sputtering torch in comparison to the floodlights true theologians cast upon it.

It is good to remember that The Letter to the Romans is one source of the great divide between Catholics and Protestants. It is in this letter that Martin Luther and others find so much evidence so support their sola fides that it becomes for them an article of the faith.

Verse 17 begins the rather difficult discussion of "justification" and in this discussion, some would have us believe that the justification is a matter of faith alone. "For the justice of God is revealed therein, from faith unto faith, as it is written: The just man liveth by faith. " And indeed, there seems to be a strong element of this--but only when the Letter to the Romans it taken out of the fullness of the context of revelation. For this reason, Martin Luther would have preferred a Bible lacking the Letter of James and the Letter to the Hebrews. These two put the fly in the ointment of sola fides. While it might be possible to come to the "faith alone" conclusion based on Romans, it is not possible to remain with that hypothesis if the rest of God's revelation to us is to be taken seriously. So, let us read what Paul actually says here: the justice of God is revealed in the Gospel of Christ--certainly unobjectionable. It is revealed from "faith unto faith" Another way of saying the same thing: "For in it the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith; as it is written, 'He who through faith is righteous shall live. ((RSV)'" The justice of God is revealed through faith for the continuation of faith. Then Paul goes on to quote Habakkuk 2:4. It might be instructive to take a detour to that passage to see what Paul the Rabbi was referring to:

Habukkuk 2: 4-5

4 "See, he is puffed up;
his desires are not upright--
but the righteous will live by his faith-

5 indeed, wine betrays him;
he is arrogant and never at rest.
Because he is as greedy as the grave
and like death is never satisfied,
he gathers to himself all the nations
and takes captive all the peoples. (NIV)

[4] Behold, he whose soul is not upright in him shall fail,
but the righteous shall live by his faith.
[5] Moreover, wine is treacherous;
the arrogant man shall not abide.
His greed is as wide as Sheol;
like death he has never enough.
He gathers for himself all nations,
and collects as his own all peoples." (RSV)

The one who is puffed up with pride and sure of the sanctity of himself and his actions shall not endure. Paul is not talking here about faith alone, but faith as contrasted with the actions of the arrogant man, whose works are all his own works and who seeks to devour and overcome all. Indeed, the verses in Habukkuk appear to refer to a person in particular, but they could be generalized to be understood as referring to any person who lives without faith. The Gospel of Jesus Christ makes no sense without faith--it reveals from faith to faith and informs faith. Hence, the Gospel itself is not necessarily an argument to those opposed to God in Atheism or other misguided understandings of how the universe functions. The Gospel speaks from faith to faith. However, faith is a gift each person has and which is embodied in the indwelling Holy Spirit who constantly calls upon us to move closer to God. The Gospel of God is recognized within by the Holy Spirit and it calls to all, faith to faith. But faith alone , as James would tell us, is insufficient, because a true faith inspires works. It is important to note that the works don't "earn" our way into heaven, but they can be seen as the heavy-lifting that builds up faith's endurance and strength. That is, when we act on faith in God, we build up our own trust in God's providence and love for us. Works are continuations of faith and strengthen an intellectual faith that could snap or be crushed under the weight of the world. Paul here says nothing of works, and even when he does refer to works, one must keep in mind that the quotation he has used gives the context of his thought. The works of an arrogant man will avail him nothing because they do not stem from faith. While the works of a "good" arrogant man may, for the moment appear to be helpful, they will sour and bring forth a fruit of destruction. Such works are the works of men, but there are works of faith, which are works of God, instituted by God and approved by God as strengthening us and making us fit for the kingdom. Indeed, we can enter the kingdom, flabby, overweight, and spiritually distressed--the spiritual equivalent of a couch potato. For those in such condition, there is a work-out room called Purgatory, which purifies and strengthens because it is not given for the weak to look upon the face of God and live--and sense all in Heaven glory in the gaze of God himself, we must be strengthened to endure it. That happens either here below, or when we have passed into the new life. And miraculously, it is the "works" of others through their prayers for the dead that can help make us ready to enter the kingdom.

I apologize, I have strayed from the point. But I have done so because it is in this letter that some of the more strident and overwhelming of the doctrines of protestantism find their strongest statement. It is only through correcting these by looking at the fullness of scriptural revelation (and I will not pretend to have done so) that we can regain perspective.

I will acknowledge that some of my representations of these arguments for works may be theologically off-balance. I am not a professional theologian, nor a particularly nuanced interpreter of scripture; however, I am not certain that the theologians and the nuancers have helped particularly in our appreciation of what St. Paul writes here.

So let me finish out the verse: "The just will live by faith." Justification--the process of becoming just, is initiated by faith. Through faith we come to know and honor justness and justice. Through faith we continue to walk in justness and justice. But justness and justice require balance--faith supplies the strength, works supply the balance. What is within us is lived out by what we do in the world to transform it into God's world. This must be true or the admonition for us all to preach the Gospel is meaningless. What is preaching the Gospel other than a work of faith? And does this work contribute to justness? Just as the teacher learns more each time he or she teaches a subject, so the preacher faith increases each time he or she relies upon the Holy Spirit to explain the faith to others.

The just will live by faith, but not by faith alone--faith demands an expression, it demands an outpouring, it overflows the person in the form of the greatest of theological virtues--love. And love is not love if it is not expressed--hence, back to works. The expression of love, whatever form it may take, is a work of the Holy Spirit that in turn strengthens faith within us. And so we come back full circle.

One can only derive sola fides through a decontextualization of the Letter to the Romans from the rest of revelation. It certainly was not Paul's intent to do so. He demonstrates this clearly even within this single verse, referring back to the rather obscure prophet Habukkuk, whose book most of us probably haven't even read. But Paul knew it and understood it, and grounded part of his understanding of the Glory of God upon it, delivering it to us for all ages through the aegis and protection of the Holy Spirit. The words of Paul continue to inspire us today as we read them and begin to understand them in the way the Paul meant them to be understood, and in the way that the Holy Catholic Church has understood them for two millennia now.

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Jubliee of St. Paul Romans 1:16b

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Yesterday I tackled the first half of the first verse of the passage I had written out. When I started writing yesterday, I had every intention of completing the passage in a single marathon run-through. But it appears that other Agencies had a different course in mind because today, as I was planning to complete the discussion of the passage, I was entranced by the second half of the first verse in this pericope: "for it is the power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth; to the Jew first, and also to the Greek."

Yesterday, we witnessed the bold proclamation "I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ" and I asked the question whether the same could be said for each of us. Today, we have the reason--the gospel of Christ is the power of God unto salvation. This is a fundamental tenet of our faith. The Good News of Jesus Christ is the news of salvation, redemption, and love. It is the news of a highly personal, highly involved God, who wishes to know each of us and whose will is that none of us should ever be separated from Him. However, as St. Thomas Aquinas teaches, the only thing, the single possibility of action, that stems entirely from a human being is a refutation or transgression of the will of God. This is all that we can accomplish on our own--a resounding NO to the eternal Yes uttered by Mary which allowed the salvation story to unfold.

Also note one of the great and resounding chords of the book of Romans--this salvation is not only for the historic Chosen People of God. Rather is is for all the people of God, with the Jews first (and I don't know if this means in the sequence of History, in the order of prominence, or both) but also to the non-Jewish people. It is a promise made to everyone who believes. And this raises a great question, which begins to be answered as we read through the latter portion of this pericope, and which is addressed in much greater detail and depth further on in the letter--just how pervasive is this gospel message? how powerful? and who is redeemed by it?

This great promise, this great salvation, has power beyond that which we acknowledge--or so it seems here because it is power for everyone of faith, everyone who believes, everyone who ardently and whole-heartedly seeks God. The gospel then, is universal, a promise to all peoples through all of time. It is the gospel that saves even those who lived before its proclamation to the world because it is a work out of linear time (chronos) and deeply permeated in all of time (kairos). The depth of this mystery is the depth of great joy and the source of all hope. It is something to celebrate and something to live day to day. It is, in fact, the fullness of God's love revealed, and hence, the fullness of God Himself because He is not separate from His love being simple and triuniate.

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This page is a archive of entries in the Loving God category from August 2008.

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