Theologians boldly rise to the occasion
What to do when God has favored you with new revelation? I don’t mean just a casual vision or two—but with a Cosmos-shattering revelation update: You have been given the word that God has revised a whole salvation scheme. How do you mesh this new scheme with the old system in place for centuries? We see the apostle Paul wrestling with this very task in chapter 4 of his Letter to the Romans.
Welcome back to our journey through this book of the Bible. We’re treading through it chapter by chapter, one every other week.
Please don’t change channels just yet! Isn’t it fun (well, so okay, I’m a nerd) to be well equipped to point out the glaring shortcomings of Christianity? Especially some of the sophomoric theology in the Bible? The Letter to the Romans has been one of the most studied books of the Bible—Christian theologians have obsessed about it for centuries—and it has had a major impact on Western thought. Martin Luther urged Christians to memorize it. So it’s worth our trip, although most Christians skip Romans because…well, because it’s pretty tedious. But if we can grasp Paul’s thought, we can how badly Christian thought went off the rails.
Way back in 1969, when our astronauts landed on the Moon, President Nixon got into trouble with evangelicals when he remarked that it had been the most important week in world history: how remarkable that humans had stepped onto another planet. Oh no, Billy Graham reminded him, Holy Week, culminating with the resurrection of Jesus, would always rank as the most important week in world history. And indeed, the apostle Paul saw Jesus’ resurrection as the Cosmos-shattering event that he felt compelled to proclaim to the world.
But wait, was this something new that God had come up with? Had God changed his mind about how people can get saved? We read in Isaiah 40:8 that “the grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand forever.” So why would it need to be changed? How could an amendment be needed? Paul had do deal with this, and he does get points for cleverness in Romans 4.
There is no doubt that Paul was an expert on the ancient scriptures. In Philippians 3:5 he mentions his credentials: “…circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee.” At that time the primary things that made you a Jew were circumcision and careful observance of the Law.
But now Paul had to argue—based on his special revelations from the risen Jesus—that circumcision no longer mattered, and even if you managed to obey every ‘jot and tittle’ of all the sacred laws…well, that didn’t matter either. What did matter was having faith that God had raised Jesus from the dead. Having faith was Paul’s obsession; his magical thinking was rooted here. Having faith meant more than anything else, and Paul discovered that there was a role model for such faith in Abraham. It’s in the story of Abraham in Genesis that we find God’s requirement for genital mutilation. In Genesis 17:10-14 Abraham got the word that circumcision would be part of God’s covenant, but before that—and this is crucial—in Genesis 15 Abraham received the astounding news that he would be the father of a great nation—despite being childless, with a barren elderly wife, in his advanced years. And here’s the key text that Paul used in his revelation-revision:
(God) brought him outside and said, “Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your descendants be.” And he believed the Lord; and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness (Genesis 15:5-6).
So Abraham himself, so many centuries before, had set the example of believing a divine promise, or as Paul states it in Romans 4:11-12: “He received the sign of circumcision as a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith while he was still uncircumcised. The purpose was to make him the ancestor of all who believe without being circumcised and who thus have righteousness reckoned to them, and likewise the ancestor of the circumcised who are not only circumcised but who also follow the example of the faith that our ancestor Abraham had before he was circumcised.” See what I mean? Tedious.
Of course, this was an improvement for theology, since genital mutilation was eliminated as a mark of virtue or belonging to the in-group. Paul wanted to reach out to people anywhere with his good news that belief in the risen Jesus was the key. Nonetheless, it drags theology down with magical thinking, i.e., that simple-minded acceptance of a resurrection fable triggers God’s grace: Voilà eternal life is yours.
Paul has been followed by thousands of other theologians who scour through scripture looking for texts to back up their particular theological detours and blind alleys, no matter how far they may stray from the meaning of the original text. The ultimate irony here, of course, is that “being saved” or winning “eternal life” were utterly foreign concepts to Old Testament theologians, including those who wrote the Abraham sagas. They had no belief in heaven or life everlasting. When you died, perhaps your soul lingered a while in the dark underworld of she’ol, then you faded away. Poof….gone.
Eventually a great kaleidoscope of pagan beliefs invaded Jewish thought—including depictions of afterlife, heaven, hell and the apocalypse to bring God’s justice to Earth. Sadly, Jesus and Paul were among those who fell hard for so much of the strange new revenge-reward theology.
David Madison was a pastor in the Methodist Church for nine years and has a PhD in Biblical Studies from Boston University. His book, Ten Tough Problems in Christian Thought and Belief: a Minister-Turned-Atheist Shows Why You Should Ditch the Faith, was published last year by Tellectual Press.