Thursday, November 12, 2009

Where the New Perspective on Paul meets the Fabricated Luther? Witherington on Romans 7

Ok, people help me with this. I cast the Witherington commentary aside, last year, because I was mad about what he wrote about Romans 6 and 7. All wrong, in my opinion, (if it counts). After the the Love Live conference we were sitting together talking amongst many things about Romans.

This below is on Romans 7.14-25 form Witherington's commentary.

There is an ever-growing body of opinion, led by the reassessment of early Judaism offered by E.P. Sanders and his disciples, that Paul could not possibly be describing here the experience of a Jew as a Jew himself would have described it. If we take, for example, Psalm 119 as a sort of transcript of Jewish experience of the Law, Jews delighted in the Law and saw wrestling with the Law and striving to keep its commandments as a joy, even if such practice was always a work in progress. Nor will it do to suggest that Rom. 7:14-25 is how at least a very rigorous Pharisaic Jew, like Paul, would have described his experience under the Law, for in fact Paul tells us in Phil. 3.6 that in regard to righteousness in the Law he was blameless. As Stendhal says, the evidence is that Paul had a quite robust conscience as a Pharisaic Jew. It is true that Phil. 3.6 does not say that Paul was sinless or perfect, only that, according to the standard of righteous behavior the Law required, no one could fault him for being a law-breaker. Blameless before the law and sinless are most certainly two different things. Gal. 1.14 only further supports this reading, for in that text Paul says he was making good progress in his faith and was very zealous and excited about keeping the traditions of his ancestors. Furthermore, as we have said, as a Christian Paul also manifests a robust conscience, not a sin-laden one, if the subject is what he has done since he became a Christian. His anxieties are about and for his fellow Christian, not about his own spiritual state. This becomes especially clear in Romans 9 when Paul will say that he could wish himself cut off from Christ if it would produce a turning to Christ by many of his fellow Jews. In fact, one would be hard-pressed to find any mea culpas of any kind in any of Paul's letters when he is describing his experience as a Christian, much less evidence that he saw himself as burdened by the body of death and the bondage to sin. Nor, if Paul when a Jew did not feel like other person described in Rom. 7. 14-25, is there any good reason to suppose that other devout Jews felt this way. It is time to stop reading Rom. 7.14-25 through the lens of Augustine and Luther, not least because it keeps fueling skewed views of both early and modern Judaism, which in turn fuel anti-Semitism.

Really now? The author of the commentary basically does not want to allow that Paul is speaking of himself in Romans 7.  Previously he came up with a fictional rhetorical device that makes this passage the talk of a non-Christian only.

I am sorry, that is turning the passage on its head.

Paul's anxieties are only for fellow-Christians-- is the other argument here. Yes, he sounds extremely unselfish in Romans 9, but that does not fit here. Other Christians may struggle, but Paul not? That would make him the ultimate Pharisee, would it not? Also, if Paul's salvation really did not matter, then no body else's does either. Witherington does not see a rhetorical device when he does not want to.

And does this bringing in of "skewed views of early and modern Judaism", which supposedly "fuel anti-Semitism" make any sense here,at all?

No, they don't. Witherington, I submit, as a Methodist, does not like what Paul wrote here. That's all. And Luther and anti-Semitism have to be dragged in here, whether fair or not.

He finishes the chapter with the "Bridging the Horizons":

Paul Achtemeier warns about Romans 7: "Those who seek to preach or teach this passage face the problem of overcoming the weight of the long history of interpretation which has distorted Paul's intention in these verses." On the other hand, in an age of not only biblical illiteracy but also ecclesiological ignorance, not that many people, even in the church, know this history of interpretation. It is not necessary to remove a burden of interpretation that does not exist, but it is important to give a modern audience a sense of caution about over-psychologizing the text and especially about using it as a way to deal with modern psychological dilemmas of moral impotence or schizophrenia or the like. Reading this text through the eyes of Freud is about as unhelpful as reading it through the eyes of Augustine or Luther.

If, however, one can convey the sense of the flow of the text and that it deals with a spiritual crisis in the life of the non-Christian described, then this text could be used in fruitful ways. For example, one could ask: What is the nature of conversion? What happens not only to one's worldview but to one's moral compass and willpower when one is delivered from the bondage to sin? If conversion is not merely a cognitive event, what are its potential benefits vis-a vis one's emotions, will, and conduct? But if one goes down this road, one must also be prepared to talk frankly about the potential tensions in the Christian life, the struggle between inner and outer self, between person and persona, between flesh and Spirit. If one loads too much into one's theology of crisis conversion, one will then have difficulty explaining the struggles of the subsequent christian life.

Honestly, I don't understand this last bit. Is he now allowing for the "struggles of the subsequent christian life" and what does he exactly mean by that? Something other than what Paul wrote, there, obviously, because he supposedly did not write this about himself or the Christian life.

I, for one, am glad that Paul included this: "I myself in my mind am a slave to God's law, but in the sinful nature a slave to the law of sin." He is also talking about himself in the present. Could he be putting it more plainly?

The simul-justus-et-peccator is exactly how this works. Witherington does not like simul-justus-et-peccator. I've asked him. And Luther and anti-semitism have to be brought in, instead of the genius of simul-justus-et-peccator.

Also Paul says: "What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from the body of death? Thanks be to God--through Jesus Christ our Lord!" Again we note the present tense and the first person pronoun. I will not believe that Paul is not talking about himself in the present.

Is Paul already in Christ? Yes. His rescue will not be complete until he is separated from this physical body of death. The struggle remains, no matter his supposed "robust conscience". What is a "robust conscience" anyhow? Your conscience is either clear or not. Which is it? There is no middle thing. Paul is also a sinner and needs to rely on Christ every day of his life. He was strong. He was so strong he needed an affliction to keep him knowing God's grace aright. But God's grace he needed every day.

This is really, really important stuff. If we cannot adopt Romans 7:14-25 as the talk of someone who is in Christ also, we must certainly fall off the wagon to either pride or despair.

The other day, I saw a friend who told me how very guilty she feels about everything in her life. By the time she has gone from communion back to the pew she has already sinned again, she says. And I said, yea, and you even sin when you sleep. She said, yes, she'd done that, too. I explained the simul-justus-et-peccator to her and said that she really will never be in a position where she would not have to rely on the mercy of God, and would she think it would be a good place to be if she did not need it. That made sense to her. She will always and continually need to rely on the mercy of God. That's how it is. But this will come to and end, when this "body of death" is done away with.


Sam said...

Do you then believe that you are not "dead to sin" according to Romans 6? What are your thoughts about the chapter? Leaving Luther and previous views aside and just looking at the text, I see that Witherington is correct that Romans 7 is about an unbeliever and not a believer in Christ. It could also be argued that this narrative in Romans 7 is in the Historical Present Tense to give emphasis to a particular point. This is seen in the gospels as well. Thoughts?

Brigitte said...

I think Paul wraps it up really well in 7:25. Note the use of the present tense and the first person singular. I don't think he could have put it more directly.

Sam said...

Also, check this link out:

Sam said...

He does wrap it up by saying that however, a believer does not get saved over and over again. By reading that we are "dead to sin," and "slaves of righteousness" in chapter 6 we see that there is no way that chapter 7 can be about a believer. Also, if you see in 7:23 it says that Paul is "a prisoner to the law of sin" whereas 8:2 says that "the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and death." What do you make of this? Also, what does "dead to sin" in Chapter 6 mean then?

Brigitte said...

I live, however, in this constant tension, where I still need to hear the law (we are not anti-nomian) and the gospel again. It is really bad that we have let the practice of confession and absolution slide. The Lord's supper in a sense "saves" me every week. I come knowing I need him and I receive forgiveness again.

Sam said...

"The Lord's supper in a sense "saves" me every week."

Where is this in the Bible?

Sam said...

Another question: What is the point of temptation and God allowing us to "bear under it" if it means that we are always going to struggle with sin? Shouldn't we be saying no temptation by God's grace and not choosing to sin habitually? With that said, are you saying that you will sain habitually in the same areas and still be a believer?

Sam said...

I apologize for the all the questions. I'm just curious of your thoughts on this topic because of your post. :) I appreciate that you are willing to discuss this.

Brigitte said...

You go ahead, Sam and chose not to sin, and let me know how you are doing? I have read Paul this way. It did not work for me. This struggle is what made me a Lutheran. I've been there.

Sam said...

I'm not trying to be mean. :( I am genuinely asking for your answers and view. If I am wrong Scripturally I am asking you to assist me. Please forgive me if I was rude. I did not intend to be. I am also not saying that we are perfect and don't sin. 1 John is clear. I am just requesting that you would explaing Romans in context to support your view. Please, again, forgive me :(.

Brigitte said...

It's hard to tell sometimes, if someone is just trying to irritate you, though no one would say that's what they are doing anyhow, but I'll take your word for it. :)

We definitely are meant to struggle with temptation and not to give in. We do more or less well in some of those battles. We know this by experience. And the only ones we win are the ones where the spirit really bears us up and we really want to, but even then... The point is, the real, real, real point is that we never get off our knees. We never come to a point where we don't need Christ. We need him and we have him and we thank him. And we try again tomorrow. We are completely thrown upon his mercy and this is how it needs to be.

Brigitte said...

I am a new creation to this extent that I know that God's will toward me is gracious. And rejoicing in his manifold mercies, I can act freely in ways that I sincerely hope that please him. This is a new thing, because our Old Adam wants to have none of that.

Brigitte said...

I didn't meant to put you off, Sam, but it does to some extent come down to experience. If I focus on my newness, I am in trouble. I've tried it.

Sam said...

I understand where you are coming from and I do not want to say that we are perfect and do not sin. 1 John says that if we practice sin we are liars and the truth is not in us. But it also says that if we say we don't sin (singular) we are a liar and the truth is not in us. So when interpreting my experiences I see that sanctification occurs by allowing sin to leave my life as I become more conformed into Christ's image. The initial step is that God saves me and destroys the flesh but then I grow and continually repent of new sins that appear (more out of omission than comission). So the true wrestling with temptation and when sin occurs I repent and confess, ask for forgiveness, and mature into more of a Christ-like believer. The new problem then comes down to defining what temptation is versus sin. Our emotions can make temptations FEEL like sin but that does not mean that they ARE sin. Even Jesus was tempted.

So I guess that it comes down to defining of terms: what is temptation, and what is sin. Also, where does the devil come in, and what is his role to play in the believer's life?

I agree fully that we can NEVER leave a position of humility before Christ that HE saved us, sustains us, and strengthens us daily. We must come boldly to His throne of grace to find help in time of need (referring to temptation). So I agree with you whole heartidly.

Thanks for speaking with me on the topic by the way. I appreciate your willingness to discuss it! :)

Brigitte said...

Sam, I've had this talk with Ben Witherington on his blog. I don't think it helps really to get very sophisticated (get into sophistry) about what is pre-meditated sin, what is just temptation and what is sin, etc.

We are a mixed up bunch. Seriously, we should not have pre-meditated sin, but is eating that cookie on the counter when I'm on a diet and overweight, a pre-meditated sin. Will I go to hell for obesity/gluttony? It gets a kind of difficult to distinguish. Luther was in this "cloaca" of confession. This is the flip-side of it, which we want to avoid. "Who can discern his faults" David said, and what we also apply to our sins. We try, but it gets to be a mess. So we accept the mess and go back to trusting Jesus. I don't like the idea of "trying your best" as being ok, as some try to get away with. Our best is not ok. We need forgiveness also for the things we don't discern. And the distinction between omission and commission is artificial, and self-satisfying as well. Why would a sin of omission be any less sin, etc. Christ made very clear how deep sin goes. Let's hear him.

Sam said...

Thanks for the response. I do not want to communicate that either sin is better than the other. I just want to emphasize that there should be a decrease in comissive acts of sin that occur in the believer's life.

Also, I was wondering how you define "dead to sin" in Romans 6? What does it mean and how does it impact the believer? What is the distinction between a believer and unbeliever if we can continue sinning and still call ourselves a believer? Thoughts?

Brigitte said...

1. Decrease in "commissive" acts. You go ahead and measure it if you want. I am worrying about one day at a time. Each has its own concerns. As I am getting older, I am feeling less organized, etc. Am I getting worse? As their bodies go downhill many seem less gracious. My son died in a car accident, this has frozen me in some respects. Am I worse? Life has its way with us, and the only thing that is constant is my Saviors love. God puts up with us because He is gracious, abounding in steadfast love. What if I lie in a coma or in a bed in a nursing home, am I better or worse? How do you measure any of it? How good or bad is a baby. Is the toddler worse because he has to test everything? Sorry. It's just running away with me. I am just never into comparing very much. Sometimes, by God's grace we may note that a certain problem has gone away. Well, thanks be to God for that.

2. "Dead to sin" means I have passed from death to life. To live is Christ, to die is gain. I am baptized into his name, and I belong to him, died and risen. It is a fact, an external fact, flying in the face of all those looking inside themselves for proof, or looking at their decrease in "commissive acts" for proof. I belong to him because of adoption and word of promise without if's attached. It is all I need to know. And it is all I need, period.

3. The distinction between the believer and the unbeliever is that one believes and the other doesn't. Simple, eh? It just came to me. That's the difference. Yup.

Because the world also has the law written on its heart and there are various levels of "goodness" among unbelievers, we can't really measure ourselves against them this way. Some Christian communities are not very healthy, see the church at Corinth. Others are very loving. Sometimes I think I can tell a Christian a mile away, and it does not necessarily have something to do with his "niceness" factor. More something with honesty, humility, joy, looking you straight in the eye, patience, putting up with fellow sinners... Sometimes there is an instant recognition, whatever it is. Sometimes, I just take their word for it.

4. Sinning on purpose is not really something anyone would ever be going for. I have seen Witherington misrepresent Luther's
"sin boldly", which I thought was very wrong of him. If this is something in your mind, Sam, I recommend looking up the quote in full context. I have it somewhere in Plass' "What Luther says", but don't have it at my fingertips right now. If you need to talk about that we can go to that quote.

5. And still the Christian life is a daily battle with sin, death and the devil, my flesh the world, etc. to be good. But in this battle we full confidence in the victory of another.

Brigitte said...

The book that helped me the most was Luther's commentary on Paul's letter to the Galatians, which is the magna carta of Christian freedom.

Sam said...

I know this conversation could go on for some time. I am sorry to hear about your loss. You and your family are in my prayers.

I will think about what you have stated, and I appreciate the time you have taken to respond. :)

Brigitte said...

God bless you, Sam.

עִמָּנוּאֵל said...