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Monday, December 29, 2008

Romans 9-11: Picking through the shards

Recently I returned to the Book of Romans and became leisurely reacquainted with Paul's sustained argument for "his" gospel. By the end of Romans 8 he has reached a climax: Believers in Jesus secure in the love of God from every evil assault. He then breaks to confess to the Romans his great distress that his wonderful message has so far failed to win the vast majority of the Jews. He embarks on a theodicy that concludes with the hopeful resolution that God has shut Jews and Gentiles both in disobedience in order to show mercy to them all, whereupon he praises God for his unsearchable wisdom.

The opening verses of Romans 9 invite comparison with Moses's intercession with Yahweh for the Israelites at Mt. Sinai after the golden calf incident in Ex. 32-34. There are enough quotations and allusions to sections of these chapters to at least entertain the idea that Paul intends a comparison. Ultimately, though, the comparison is not sustained. For one thing, Exodus 32-34 is an extended narrative, and, for that matter, one written long after the "events" it relates. The author and intended readers already know that Israel did not perish in the wilderness, that the promise of the land would be "fulfilled." The narrative answers the question, "How could a nation of sinners like us inherit the land?"

Paul, on the other hand, does not have the luxury of hindsight. He may be willing to risk his apostleship to stand in the gap for his fellow Jews, but he cannot show the Romans how his intercession has already won them God's favor. Even more important is Paul's recourse to remnant theology. He will make the argument that God has been saving only a remnant of Israel. The current situation is no different and something better for Israel must be preceded by a process of spiritual renewal for gentiles. Paul also does not address the Romans as mediator for the Jews but as ambassador of God. He takes God's side and argues for his prerogatives. Whatever intercession Paul may do and whatever pleas he may make on Israel's behalf will take place offstage. He doesn't let the readers in on his conversation with God. Perhaps this is out of humility; Jesus is the greater Moses who sacrificed his life for the people already. Paul will not portray himself as another Moses and so appear to usurp Jesus's mediatorship.

I think, though, that Paul's view of God is really different from that of the author(s) of Exodus 32-34, or at least the sections in 32:7-14,30-33; 33:12-28;34:1-9. For whatever reason, he doesn't seem to think that the "plan" of God he finds in Scripture is up for negotiation. He will explain and defend what he thinks is found there, but even if it troubles and sorrows him, he won't challenge it. Instead, he finds a way to make it work out for the greater glory of God. Or, at least that seems to be his intent.

I intend to argue that he fails to achieve his intent. First, in his eagerness to find support for his view of God, he engages in some creative interpretation of the Scripture. Second, his arguments have been so troubling to later readers that we now have vastly different interpretations of these chapters. You can always say, "That's the reader's problem, not Paul's." But it is his problem too, because at many points he is ambiguous and his language can be pressed in different directions, none of which ends up with a completely satisfying and coherent interpretation of the entire section, much less the entire book. In other words, no matter how you read 9-11 you end up with problems.

Most importantly, Paul's hopeful ending to these chapters shatters against the rock of history. There only so many ways to get around this. The commonest "orthodox" solution is to adopt a "pessimistic" reading; Paul's vision for the future salvation of Israel is fully compatible with the last 2000 years of Jewish-Christian relations. By the way, I include the "God will save the bulk of the Jewish nation in the messianic age," however that age is construed, as a species of pessimistic interpretation, because it requires us to believe that Paul would be satisfied that "until the fullness of the gentiles comes in" includes at least 2000 years of delay characterized by Jewish "unbelief," widespread persecution of Jews by the Christian churches, and the holocaust.

There are other less "orthodox" alternatives:
  • God is more self-limiting than Paul allows.
  • Paul's exposition of God's "plan" for salvation of Jew and Gentile is provisional and open to revision based on human response.
  • universalism.
  • Paul is just wrong about the meaning and application of the gospel for Jews, or for people generally.
  • the entire book is so much rubbish.

I, for one, don't think Romans 9-11 is just so much rubbish. I do think it has been shattered and we are left with the remains to make of it what we can. And by God's grace, I will make that attempt in subsequent posts.

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