One big chunk of the New Testament can go in the trash
The authority of the papacy took a major hit in the wake of the Protestant Reformation. Those who broke away from Rome, however, failed to free themselves from a tiresome superstition that plagues us to this day. No, there is no such thing as a Holy Man who is privy to God’s thoughts, but Protestants made the mistake of substituting one superstition for another: they transferred their loyalty and devotion to a book. Spurned Catholics derisively referred to the Bible as The Paper Pope.
Of course, Protestants bought a whole lot of problems when they decided that a book was better than a pope. As any layperson who has plowed through the whole Bible will testify, there seems to be a lot that doesn’t need to be there, that shouldn’t be there. The common sense reaction, “How in the world is this the Word of God?” applies to literally thousands of texts—although many folks wouldn’t say so out loud. In Judges 15:15-16 we read, “Then he found a fresh jawbone of a donkey, reached down and took it, and with it he killed a thousand men. And Samson said, ‘With the jawbone of a donkey, heaps upon heaps, with the jawbone of a donkey I have slain a thousand men.’” Isn’t that edifying? God wanted us to know that? Sure, the story of Samson is good folklore for the fireside, but how is it worthy to be part of the sacred canon? (Of course, apologists have ways to spin it.)
Regrettably, there are ponderous works of theology that are no more deserving, but we can’t say, “Cut this out and throw it way” (as Thomas Jefferson did so bravely with the gospels), because theologians today—who should know better—have sipped too much of the Kool-Aid. In my book, Ten Tough Problems in Christian Thought and Belief (the link is below), the tenth chapter is “Bad News Paul: A Delusional Cult Fanatic.” What a horror that his letters survived all the way to canonization. In 1932, C.H. Dodd called Paul’s Letter to the Romans “the first great work of Christian theology”—but Zeus save us from such fawning: Romans is a toxic brew of bad theology. I have been making blog posts about each of chapters in the Letter to the Romans, and we’re now up to Chapter 7.
Just how bad can some scripture be? Well, Yahweh commanding the slaughter of the native population of ancient Palestine is pretty bad, but in terms of pathetic human babbling—resulting in pathetic theobabble—it would be pretty hard to beat Romans 7. In fact my distaste for Paul goes back to my teenage years; Bible geek though I was, I dreaded reading his clunky letters. Then in 1992 I came across British scholar A.N. Wilson’s perfect description of Paul: “To say that he was self-contradictory is an understatement. He was a man who was fighting himself and quarreling with himself all the time; and he managed to project the warfare in his own breast on to the Cosmos itself” (Jesus, p. 23).
So would this be your first choice for a guy to write scripture? No. His personal torment did not result in insights about God. In the first dozen verses of the chapter we find Paul dealing again with the role of the law in religious practice, but then we come to the “warfare in his own breast.”
Writing Theology from the Therapist Couch
Paul felt that sin was a cosmic force, and—much like an aggressive cancer—invades people to their very core:
“For we know that the law is spiritual; but I am of the flesh, sold into slavery under sin. I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree that the law is good. But in fact it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me.” (7:14-20)
He had super-sized internalized low self-esteem. Today we would advise therapy and even meds is some cases. He goes on: “ So I find it to be a law that when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! (7:21-24)
But he was sure that the Cosmos had provided a fix for his anguish. “Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” This is personal theism with a vengeance; Paul had horrible forebodings about a wrathful God aware of his inability to defeat sin. However, he had discovered, through his hallucinations, the magical solution: believe in the resurrection of Jesus. Verse 7: “Brothers, you have died to the law through the body of Christ, so that you may belong to another, to him who has been raised from the dead in order that we may bear fruit for God.” But did this really work for Paul? He’s complaining a lot in these verses about the on-going battle: “Wretched man that I am!”
Bear in mind that this outburst is made in a letter to a church he’s never visited. That seems a little odd; shall we say, acting out inappropriately? From Galatians 2 we know that he didn’t get along with Peter; he my have rubbed a lot of people the wrong way. In closing the letter (chapter 16) he mentions a lot of people he knows (“Greet Prisca and Aquila…” “Greet Urbanus…”)—who seem to already be there (unless chapter 16, as some scholars have wondered, wasn’t originally part of Romans). His theology may have appealed to simple-minded converts, but how was he perceived personally? Who knows—when the scroll was received, some of them may have rolled their eyes: “Oh no, not another letter from that insufferable dingbat.”
Forgive me for resorting to a cliché, but the theology spun from Paul’s tortured brain reminds me of Macbeth’s bitter lament about life; the only words that don’t apply to Paul—darn it—are “then is heard no more.”
Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
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.