Monthly Archives: July 2008

Romans commentary (chapter six)

The sixth chapter of my running, preliminary commentary on the book of Romans is here.

These are some of the key points I discuss in the commentary,

1. Paul makes clear that his point about “grace abounding all the more” due to the “increase” of sin when “law came in” (5:20-21) has an ethical agenda at its heart. His thought is not that the abundance of God’s grace has to do with “going to heaven after we die,” but that it has to do with the empowerment of believers to live faithful lives in the present.

2. Paul sees a direct link between, on the one hand, Jesus’ own faithful life leading to the cross leading to vindication through resurrection and, on the other hand, the fate of those who seek to walk with Jesus. Paul’s central concern in these verses is to exhort his readers to share in Jesus’ way of life – the only authentic outcome for those who indeed do trust in God’s mercy.

3. The way to life is to give up trusting in idols. Easier said than done! This is why Paul places such an emphasis on the epoch transforming effect of God raising Jesus from the dead – and the believers’ identification with this work of God. We can be freed when we trust in God’s power of love.

4. Because Jesus himself was raised from the dead, his way of living free from the Powers, free from idolatry, free from the dominance of sin becomes the norm for all who would worship the true God. And Jesus’ way of living also is revealed as possible. Hence, Paul can exhort his readers to “not let sin exercise dominion in your mortal bodies” (6:12).

5. When we respond to God’s mercy with faithfulness, “sin will have no dominion” over us (6:14). When we respond thus, we are “under grace” not “under law” – just like Abraham. Paul’s point here is not a chronological one, that in Old Testament times God wanted people to be “under law” and now, with the advent of Christianity, God wants people to be “under grace.” Romans four has made it clear (as do Jesus and the prophets) that God has always wanted people to be “under grace.”

6. Paul argues that we all are “slaves” to something – either to sin or to obedience. One kind of slavery fosters a narrowing down where we become like the lifeless things we are giving our allegiance to. The other kind of slavery is actually freedom.

7. Being in bondage to the Powers keeps one from living according to justice. The way to true life involves a complete upturning of the dynamics of slavery/freedom Paul has identified as leading to death. The person moving toward “sanctification” is a person who as a “slave of God” becomes “free in regard to sin” (6:22).

8. Paul seeks to challenge the imaginations of his readers. What seems in the present and to superficial sight (dimmed by the dynamics of idolatry, Romans one) as attractive about enslavement to the Powers and unattractive about enslavement to God is a false impression. Genuine life results only from freedom from idolatry and trust in the only true God, the God of Jesus Christ.

Romans commentary (chapter five)

The fifth chapter of my preliminary, running commentary on Romans may be found here.

Here are some key points from chapter five that I discuss in the commentary.

1. Because trust in God as revealed in Jesus is the one non-idolatrous trust, we may indeed “boast” in “our hope of sharing the glory of God” (5:2). “We boast in our sufferings” (5:3) because when we walk with Jesus we will mark ourselves as threats to the Powers. And they will retaliate, causing us to suffer, leading to endurance that enhances character and produces hope (5:3-4).

2. As evidence that God will reward our faithfulness with healing, Paul points to the presence in our lives right now of God’s love through the Holy Spirit. Paul certainly believes in an ultimate future vindication, but with this reference to the present reality of the Spirit of love, he points to a genuine experience of wholeness with God in the present as well.

3. As a rule, people do not give up their lives for others (5:7). However, God does precisely this. Paul overtly couches the mysteries of Jesus’ crucifixion strictly in terms of God’s love. There is no hint here of retributive justice, no hint of any kind of mechanistic dynamic whereby a “holy” God needs some act of propitiation in order, according to the dictates of a love-less “justice” to offer pardon.

4. We have been made whole (“justified”) by Jesus’ “blood” (5:9; that is, his life of faithfulness unto death leading to his blood being shed as a witness to the transforming character of his life that evoked such hostility from the Powers).

5. God reaches out to us while we are still God’s enemies. God’s initiative is centered on the witness of Jesus, who loved even to the point of a self-sacrificial death at the hands of the Powers (and we should remember that Paul surely had himself in mind here as an “enemy of God’ who used violence against Jesus’ followers).

6. By pointing back to Adam, Paul makes clear that the Law was not to blame. Sin was in the world before God’s revelation to Moses. However, it takes the Law to be able clearly to define sin (idolatry) for what it is. The Law, though, was never intended to solve the problem of sin. What it does is offer guidance for transformative obedience as the appropriate response to God’s mercy – mercy that does indeed solve the problem of sin.

7. Following Adam’s path leads to condemnation. Following Jesus’ path leads to “justification and life for all” (5:18). Adam’s way unleashes the Powers who tighten the spiral of death and injustice, resulting in many people being “made sinners” (5:19).

8. How does “the one man’s obedience” lead to the making just of the many (5:19)? We should think in terms of Jesus’ “saving work” having to do with his model of freedom from the Powers, vindicated by God raising him from the dead, and sustained by the power of the presence of the Holy Spirit among those who do trust in God’s mercy.

9. Paul is committed to the conviction that God’s grace will have the final word. As distressing as the reality of sin is, and as troubling as having the insight to see the deadly dynamics of idolatry might be, Paul insists that God’s mercy will be more powerful yet. Ultimately, the growth of sin will lead to a growth in mercy. The more need there will be God’s healing justice, the more God will bestow healing justice.

Romans commentary (chapter four)

The fourth chapter of my running, preliminary commentary on Romans may be found here

These are some key points from Romans 4 that I discuss in my commentary:

1. How was Abraham justified (made whole in his relationship with God)?  God’s gifting call came first, then Abraham’s trust, and then, in response, Abraham’s following the commands (i.e., circumcision, the classic boundary-marking command).

2. To one who trusts in following the commands as the way of gaining God’s favor, the favor God bestows (“wages”) are “something due,” not a “gift” (4:4).  In contrast, to one who recognizes that God’s favor is from the start a gift that need not be earned, trust in God is what counts as the basis for their being seen as just.

3. In Genesis, Abraham was called in chapter 12 and not circumcised until chapter 17.  The circumcision was a “sign” that served as a “seal of the justice he had by faith” (4:11).  The justice, though, was established before Abraham’s circumcision.  

4. When Paul speaks of God’s promise that Abraham and his descendants “would inherit the world” (4:13), he may have in mind the promise of Genesis 12:3 that Abraham’s descendents would “bless all the families of the earth.”  Paul’s own apostleship to the Gentiles (1:5) may be seen as his acting on the confidence that he is part of the embodiment of the “inheritance” promised Abraham.

5. “The law brings wrath” (4:15) means: “Trusting in the law as an idol separated from God’s motivating mercy brings with it negative consequences.  Those so trusting lose touch with this mercy and instead are possessed by the rules in ways that lead to violence and injustice.”

6. Paul is not meaning to imply that Israel is no longer part of God’s covenant.  He merely argues, based on the original scope of the promise to Abraham and Sarah, that this promise includes both “adherents  of the law” and those “outside the law,” that is, both Jews and Gentiles.

7. In the beginning of Israel, God brought into being something new, out of nothing, an act of pure mercy.  If God did such a work in the time of Abraham, there is no reason why God could not do it again.  The Gentiles who trust in God in Paul’s context are not less worthy of God’s mercy (and no less uncircumcised) than Abraham had been when God first called him.

8. Paul’s punch line: “the words ‘it was reckoned to him,’ were written not for [Abraham’s] sake alone, but for ours also” (4:23-24).  This story Abraham is a present reality throughout all of history, showing how God works with human beings and providing a model for human responsiveness to God. 

Romans commentary (chapter three)

The third chapter of my running, preliminary commentary on Romans may be found here: chapter three.

These are some key points from Romans 3 that I discuss in my commentary:

1. I would not read an angry God who directly intervenes to punish into these ruminations by Paul. More, he seems to have in mind the need to hold on to a moral universe. One danger is to believe that unjust people will be able to practice their injustice without consequences. The other danger is to forget that God is a merciful God who above all else in relation to human beings desires wholeness and restored relationships.

2. “Sin” is about idolatry that manifests itself in injustice. By being under the “power of sin” Paul has in mind sin as a force outside of us (though it taps into and exploits our inner flaws) that shapes us and distorts our way of seeing and seduces us into worshiping idols. And this “worship” of idols leads to injustice. When Paul says we are “all” under the power of sin, his point seems to be not so much that each individual is (he has already alluded to the existence of genuinely just people) but that Jews and Gentiles as distinct populations are each equally liable to being under the power of sin (that is, idolaters).

3. When Paul states in 3:20 that no one will be justified (made whole, restored to healthy relationships with God and other human beings) by “deeds prescribed by the law” (or, “works of the law”), he emphasizes the peculiarly Jewish (and problematic) reduction of the law to particular rules especially useful for setting and sustaining boundaries (e.g., circumcision, Sabbath observance, kosher eating). Such a tendency leads to a sense of entitlement and hostility toward Gentiles (contradicting the call to bless all the families of the earth), and of having leverage over against God.

4. The law helps give knowledge of sin (as idolatry) by providing various touchstones for when we cut ourselves off from God’s healing power. When there is injustice, that is a sure sign that our trust in God has wavered. When the communal wholeness prescribed by the law is violated, that warns us of the presence of idols in our midst. The law also points us to the reality of our liberator God who stands in contrast to all the other gods we are tempted to trust in.

5. When Paul asserts that the disclosure of God’s justice is “attested by the law and prophets” he is saying that scripture from the start has witnessed to how God discloses God’s justice – through acts of mercy and liberation.

6. Paul is saying that the problem of idolatry cuts across any possible lines of distinction. The (Gentile) lusters (Rom. 1) are idolaters, but equally so are the (Jewish) judgers (Rom. 2).

7. When Paul speaks specifically of Jesus’ blood as the means of “a sacrifice of atonement” “put forward” by God (3:25), he refers to Jesus’ life (“the life is in the blood,” Lev 17:14) as a witness to God’s justice.

8. God “put forward” Jesus’ self-sacrificial life in order to make clear with all with eyes to see the nature of God’s justice. When the Powers respond to this disclosure with murderous violence, they are exposed as idols. This exposure provides a means for liberation for their seductions. Then, the final expression of God’s commitment to Jesus as the expression of justice put forward by God comes when God raises Jesus from the dead, firmly establishing Jesus as the authentic revelation of the healing justice of God.

Romans commentary (chapter two)

This is the running, preliminary commentary on Romans two that is part of my commentary on the book of Romans as a whole. This first draft is based on a close reading of the text and will later be fleshed out with reference to the scholarly literature. Romans two

At the heart of my concern here is considering how Paul links together two kinds of idolatry – the idolatry of the Roman Empire and the idolatry of the law.  The “idolators” and the “judgers” both worship the creation rather than the creator with the consequence of ultimately serving violence and injustice rather than love and restorative justice.

Romans commentary (chapter one)

I am working on a non-technical commentary on Romans that emphasizes theology and ethics. The first step is simply to read through the book, closely, writing down thoughts as I go along. Then I will add insights drawn from commentaries (the commentaries I have read so far include, among others, those by Robert Jewett, James Dunn, and N. T. Wright). The third step will be to add reflections that apply the main ideas of Romans to our day.

Here is what I came up with on my first reading of chapter one.

We face a series of interpretive choices right from the start. What do we understand Paul to have in mind with his key terms “obedience,” “faith/faithfulness,” and “righteousness/justice”? What is the key problem Paul identifies in chapter one? I suggest that it is idolatry leading to injustice – and that he is especially concerned with challenging his readers (Gentile Christians living in Rome) to (1) remain free of empire-idolatry and (2) model for the watching world social reconciliation between Jewish and Gentile followers of Jesus (a new model for political existence).

Mennonite Pacifism and World War II

How does one stick to pacifist convictions during war time, especially a war with strong social acceptance? This is the issue Mennonites in the United States faced during World War II. I have written an essay, Civilian Public Service and Mennonite Pacifism, that addresses this question.

I suggest that the key elements in the ability of the young men of draft age to stay faithful to their convictions were the efforts made by their church communities to offer spiritual and material support. About 50% of the Mennonite young men who were drafted performed alternative service (they made up about 40% of all legally recognized conscientious objectors).

Though this was a difficult time for Mennonites in the U.S. in many ways, they emerged from World War II with their sense of identity intact. Many of those who performed alternative service became leaders in the churches in the years following–and exerted a powerful influence in deepening Mennonite pacifist commitments.