Friday, 23 October 2015

Week 29 Friday (Year 1) - 23 October 2015

Readings: Romans 7:18-25 ; Psalm 119; Luke 12:54-59

This is the third and final part of a lecture on 'Human Nature and Destiny According to St Paul'. It may be of help in thinking about the first half of the Letter to the Romans which we have been reading over the past couple of weeks. The full text of the lecture is to be found here.

Who Are We Talking About? An Answer From Genealogy

What if Paul’s understanding of human nature and destiny is more readily accessible in terms of the ‘who’ question than of the ‘what’ question? In other words that instead of asking ‘what are we and how are we made up’, we ask ‘who are we, where have we come from and where are we going’. Here I concentrate on the first part of the Letter to the Romans, the work that comes closest to giving us a systematic account of Paul’s gospel.
In Romans 1-8 there are three accounts of the origins of human history, 1.18-23, 5.12-21 and 7.7-13, described by A.Feuillet as ‘narrative maps’ that describe the human predicament in a number of ways. That this narrative approach can be further characterized as genealogical is my own suggestion and it arises from noticing that in Romans 1-8 Jesus Christ is described as son of God, son of Adam, son of Abraham, and son of David.
Let me say a bit more about genealogy. The best-known genealogy in the New Testament is that of Jesus given in Matthew 1.1-17. This tells how Jesus is the son of Abraham, son of David, and son of Mary and Joseph, fourteen generations from Abraham to David, fourteen from David to the Babylonian captivity, and fourteen from the Babylonian captivity to Jesus Christ.
But there is also a genealogy of Jesus given by Luke, immediately after Jesus’ baptism (3.23-38). This one works backwards, saying he was the son (as was supposed) of Joseph, who was the son (eventually) of David, the son of Abraham, the son of Adam, the son of God. Jesus is described in the opening verses of Romans as ‘descended from David according to the flesh’ and ‘designated Son of God by his resurrection from the dead’ (Romans 1.3,4). He is a son of Abraham, the promised ‘seed’ of Abraham, a fact that is crucial to the theological histories of Romans and Galatians, and he is the son of Adam, even the second or last Adam, a fact that is central not only in Romans but also in the letters to the Corinthians.
I am suggesting that another way of approaching the question of human nature and destiny in Paul is to look at these narrative maps in Romans 1-8 and the genealogical history found there. In what these chapters say about the family of Adam, of Abraham and of David and the relationship of that family to another, heavenly, family, the Father, the Son and the Spirit, we find a rich theological answer to the questions ‘who are we, where have we come from, and where are we going?’
The first narrative map, Romans 1.18-23, tells of the need of all people for the righteousness revealed by God in the gospel. This is not a matter of law and its observance or non-observance but of faith and its justifying power. The key figure in the resolution of the difficulties to which this map testifies is Abraham who believed God and was thereby reckoned as righteous (Romans 3.21-5.11). Everybody knows how central Abraham’s faith is to Paul’s reflections in Romans and Galatians. He is faithful, even ‘our father in faith’, and so becomes a model of the faithful one, his son or seed, Jesus Christ (Galatians 3.16).
But there are two other aspects of Abraham’s story that are important for Paul. One is that Abraham had a son, Isaac, whom he loved and whom he was asked to sacrifice. But God spared the son of Abraham while acknowledging the faith Abraham showed in being prepared to be obedient even to the point of death. Abraham and Isaac become types then of another Father and Son, the Eternal Father and his Son, Jesus, whom the Father did not spare, instead giving him up for us all. This last comment comes in the great climax to these chapters in Romans 8.32.
A further aspect of Abraham’s faith that is central to this story is that he believes that God can even raise the dead. There are some hints that this faith is seen even in Abraham’s acceptance that in spite of his great age (‘one as good as dead’: Hebrews 11.12) he will have a son. We see Abraham’s faith in a God who raises the dead also in his willingness to sacrifice Isaac: ‘he considered that God was able to raise men even from the dead’ (Hebrews 11.19). But it is present from the beginning of Abraham’s relationship with God when he is told that he is to be the father of many nations ‘in the presence of the God in whom he believed, who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist’ (Romans 4.17).
The second narrative map, Romans 5.12-21, contrasts the situation of humanity in Adam with our situation in Christ. As by one man’s disobedience many came to experience sin and death so – and not just so but ‘much more’ – by one man’s obedience many come to experience grace and life. The power of sin, death and law, strengthening from Adam to Moses and beyond is undone by the saving death and resurrection of Jesus. So this narrative history opens onto an account of baptism. Our old self has died, nay been crucified, with him. We have been brought from death to life, no longer under law but under grace. This re-creation of Adam is brought about by the second or last Adam, Jesus, the son of Adam.
The third narrative map, Romans 7.7-13, seems more psychological than anthropological or historical. It describes an inner conflict that agitates and hinders human fulfillment: ‘I do not understand my own actions’, Paul says (7.15), ‘wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?’ (7.24). The answer to his question is ‘thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord’ (7.25). For Paul Jesus is the Son of God and his death and resurrection is the source of the Spirit. Romans 7 belongs with Romans 8, that great symphony of life in the Spirit which is only fully appreciated in its contrast with Romans 7, a darker composition reminding us of what life in the flesh involves. In Romans 7 we find many of the concepts of Paul’s anthropology: law, sin, flesh, inmost self, members, mind, death, life. Romans 8 presents the contrast: human nature is set free by the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death (8.2). It may seem that Romans 7-8 invites us to return to a dualistic anthropology in terms of flesh and spirit but the philosophical and psychological categories need now to be understood always in relation to the historical and – I have suggested – genealogical narratives we find in these chapters.
So what happens through these chapters? We are given three narrative maps, stories about the human situation that tell about the weakness of our nature and the difficulty of our plight. This is not a diagnosis apart from the message of the gospel but something illuminated by the gospel and understood properly only in its light. What we are taught is that we belong to the family of Adam and of Abraham, of Moses and of David. This family has won the loving attention and saving intervention of another ‘family’, the Father, the Son and the Spirit. In the course of these chapters God is revealed as a Father (3.21-5.11) who did not spare his own Son through whose death and resurrection (5.12-7.6) the Spirit is at work adopting us and making us to be children of God (8). This is our genealogy also. Who am I? Who are you? As human creatures we belong to the first family, that of Adam and Abraham, and as believers we belong now also to the second family, that of the Father, the Son and the Spirit.
Paul’s understanding of human destiny is not so much a question of God adding something to our nature, as it is God taking us into a new milieu, to be with Christ and to be in Christ. This cannot happen without the transformation of our being and our capacities but it is not that we find a place for God in our world (‘the solution to our problems’) but that God makes a place for us in His world (‘the glorious liberty of the children of God’). The principle of Christian action is the Spirit/spirit for ‘the Spirit bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God’ (Romans 8.16).
The destiny of the human being for Paul is Christ, to be in Christ, to be Christ, Christ living in us. Another way of putting this is to speak of freedom: ‘for freedom Christ has set us free’ (Galatians 5.1); ‘now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the return you get is sanctification and its end, eternal life’ (Romans 8.21).
There is much else that could be said. Romans 9-11 consider Jesus as the son of David and the particular question of the failure of Judaism as a whole to believe in Jesus as the Christ. Romans 12-16 carry the reflection further, to the new Israel, the Christian community and various aspects of its sacramental and moral life. Already in Romans 7 there is a (neglected?) reference to the body of Christ. We have died to the law through the body of Christ so that we may belong to another, to that same Christ who has been raised from the dead in order that we may bear fruit for God (Romans 7.4). For Paul, human nature has been made ready for this marriage through the righteousness of God, the faithfulness of Jesus and the grace of the Spirit. The ‘flesh’ that is problematic is replaced by the ‘body’ that enables communion and fruitfulness. For Paul our nature’s fulfillment is in presenting our bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, and our destiny is to enter into the spiritual worship of genuine love (Romans 12.1,9).

No comments: