I’ve recently listened to one of the Homebrewed Christianity podcasts in which Tripp Fuller interviews Brad Artson, who is a Conservative Rabbi and a Process Theologian. There are a lot of really good takeaways in this podcast to think of, but perhaps the most important one is this: it is horribly easy for a Christian theologian to step on Jewish toes. We really need to work on dinning into our subconscious the fact that, from the point of view of Jewish history, the Pharisees (who get a very bad treatment in all of the gospels) are the lineal predecessors of the rabbis, and modern Judaism is rabbinic Judaism.
[As an aside, I do not mean that all the interpretations of modern-day Judaism are those which would have held sway in the first century when the earliest Christian scriptures were being written, despite the widespread Jewish view that all their subsequent interpreters have done is noticed what was already there from the beginning (the concept of an oral Torah being given by Moses alongside the Pentateuch is widespread, but in fact the oral Torah is the product of some thousands of years of theological development). However, where I refer approvingly to Rabbi Artson’s views on salvation and supersessionism later in this post, I have the backing of the New Perspective on Paul, and in particular E.P. Sanders’ book “Paul and Palestinian Judaism”.]
I witnessed an awful example of stepping on Jewish toes (happily there were no Jews present) on a recent Sunday, when a preacher worked from the text of Luke 6:1-11, a challenge parable about Jesus involving gleaning grain on the Sabbath. In his account, the Pharisees were spiritless literalists who added to scripture extra provisions regarding the Sabbath which were just a millstone round people’s necks. Yes, the Pharisees had added clarification of the actual commandment that you do no work on the Sabbath, but not out of any intent to make things more difficult, rather out of the impulse to do more fully that which God has commanded. Here’s a link to illustrate this process. There is, of course, the principle of “building a fence around the Torah”, i.e. making sure that you do not disobey commands by extending the scope of what you don’t do so that you don’t inadvertently stray over the line, but even there it must be remembered that the impulse is “God has commanded this, I wish to do what is pleasing to God, so I do it – and indeed do more if possible”.
Rabbi Artson also usefully mentions Jewish exegesis, and in particular the principle that while you can interpret fairly freely, the basic meaning of a text (the Peshat) should not in principle be contradicted by what you produce by Remez (a hidden or symbolic meaning), Derash (an extended meaning often drawn from comparisons with other texts) or Sod (a mystical or deeply symbolic explanation). Readers who have read all of my blog posts will perhaps remember that I tend to take the view that an earlier text cannot be completely thrown out of the window (unless this is done completely explicitly) by a later one, i.e. when interpreting the New Testament I need to consider what the Old Testament, and particularly the Torah (the first five books) says on the subject; I assume, of course, that the New Testament writers were familiar with the Hebrew Scriptures, regarded them as authoritative and would only supersede them by clear direct statement (such as Mark 7:19) and not, as it were, by stealthy suggestion.
Of course, Rabbi Artson has a problem with at least some expressions of the Christian concept of salvation through Jesus (which is often labelled “salvation history” or “redemption history”). That is a problem which I share (and I’m not alone there), and I cast a lot of the blame for that on Paul’s interpreters (and a little on Paul himself). As the Rabbi says, in terms of Judaism there is no such thing as “original sin”, and redemption or salvation is through the simple process of repenting sin and turning to God. The whole of chapter 18 of Ezekiel deals very explicitly with this; the only additional point I make is that to repent, in Judaism, means not only to be sorry and to resolve to change your future behaviour, but to strive to make good any damage you have caused. As he points out, any sacrificial offering made thereafter in compliance with Levitical law, is evidence of that repentance and of the decision to turn back to God and to God’s commandments, it is not payment for the sin.
Of course, a very common message of Christianity has for much of its history been something like the Evangelical Christian’s standard formula (which I generally see presented as “the gospel”):-
God created a perfect world (and saw that it was good), but by disobedience, Adam messed things up and, as Paul says “sin entered the world through one man”, making us all subject to “original sin” and destined for eternal punishment. God then gave the Mosaic Law, but (again as Paul says) this was ineffective to save mankind from sin (Gal 3, Rom. 10), so there is a need for salvation by Christ, effected by means of his sacrificial death interpreted as “atoning”; we can then accept that salvation by praying the sinners’ prayer; at that point we are “saved”.
Here’s a clip of a rather longer account from the evanglical preacher R.C. Sproull. His talk is entitled “City of God” and, indeed, it is Augustine’s work of the same title which introduced the concept of “original sin”.
Anything beyond that is really somewhat disconnected from the basic fact of being saved, and I not infrequently hear “once saved, always saved”. Unless, I hear it said, every part of this very short story (compared with, for instance, any of the actual gospels) is correct, Christianity is a nullity. Here’s an example from an Evangelical source arguing on that basis that Adam must be historical, effectively because his historicity is necessary for the “salvation history” account. I see this creeping into other theological arguments – salvation history must be maintained, so (for instance) Catherine LaCugna criticises the standard philosophical Catholic background for the Trinity as not allowing adequately for Jesus’ saving activity.
There are many problems with this abbreviated account, not least that it doesn’t these days provide a good basis for evangelising. As has been pointed out, “I have good news: you’re a hopeless sinner and are destined for Hell” doesn’t tend to retain an audience. Unless people are already convicted of sin with respect to God, they are unlikely to respond to this. I say “with respect to God” as a sizeable group will respond that they have sinned against other human beings, but that is a matter between them and those they have sinned against and, even if they believe in God, do not think that God has the first (or sometimes any) interest in that. In fact, Paul adverts to this: “On the contrary, I would not have known sin except through the law”. Many people these days, who have not been brought up with a concept of needing to comply with “God’s Law”, will think that this rendering of “the gospel” is giving a solution to a problem which they don’t have. Again, this account frankly renders both Jesus’ lifetime ministry and the resurrection irrelevant. All his life needs to provide us with, in this account, is a demonstration that he was sinless, and it is his death, not his resurrection, which effects the release from sin.
It is commonly at this point in an argument that someone raises the issue of Hebrews 9:22, and suggests that there cannot be any forgiveness without the shedding of blood. This is not, of course, the case: the passage reads that one might almost say that, or that there is nearly no counter-instance, though Leviticus 5:11 clearly allows the substitution of an ephah of flour for the impecunious, and the argument of Hebrews is that we are effectively embarrassed in presenting an adequate sacrifice due to the lack of blood of sufficient worth. I pass over the possible suggestion in Hebrews that the covering (atonement) is equivalent to forgiveness, because this would in this combination be equivalent to denying the processes of forgiveness set out in the Hebrew Scriptures (such as Ezekiel 18). I suggest as a start point for interpretation that the thrust of Hebrews is linking Jesus’ death to the actions in a Heavenly parallel of the now destroyed Temple of Jerusalem, and thus appropriating the sacrificial language – and not seeking to argue that God could not forgive sin without the spilling of blood, which would be contrary to previous scripture.
I think it is necessary, therefore, to interpret Paul’s language in Romans not as having overturned God’s previous system of forgiveness of sins, but to be a midrash (derash) looking to extend understanding. Indeed, as Paul points out in Rom. 3:25-26, God had left sins unpunished. What he is complaining of is his (and by extension our) inability to stop sinning. This is, of course, what was picked up by Martin Luther and extended to the principle that we are naturally incapable of acting without sin. Now, I note with interest that Robert Sapolsky identifies Luther as suffering from obsessive-compulsive disorder. It is not difficult to see how this condition could generate a theology of inability to do the right thing; it is a feature of the disease. Forgive me if I find myself incapable of accepting a theology which grows out of a mental disorder from which I do not suffer (the state of my desk is ample witness to that!).
I could wonder whether the same aliment afflicted Paul, and was his “thorn in the flesh”, or at least a part of it, but see no other evidence in his writings. However, there may be a sufficient explanation in the “fence around the Torah” concept, which can spur the very devout to constant addition to the burden of things they must adhere to without an actual mental disorder. In fact, every Orthodox or Conservative Jew I’ve ever exhanged views with has confirmed to me that in fact, it is not particularly difficult to adhere to all of the Law (against what Paul seems to be saying in Romans), including not only those extended provisions which had been deduced in the first century, but all those which have since been deduced. This does not mean, however, that Judaism teaches that we can be perfect and avoid sin completely; it assumes that we will sin in some way, as Judaism has it’s own teaching that with Adam, i.e. in our original formation, we acquired a will towards evil (yetzer ha’ ra) as well as a will towards good (yetzer ha’tov) – but that the process of repentance and making amends is sufficient to restore our relationship with God (and man).
Paul’s position has been a vexed question for a very long time. Kurt Willems has recently started an excellent podcast series, the early parts of which briefly describe the problems of interpretation and some of the attempts at a solution. 20 years ago, it would not have been a problem for me, as I was then of the opinion that Paul had pretty much wrecked the message of Jesus and could safely be ignored. Now, however, I have to acknowledge both that Paul’s writings are the earliest Christian writings, that they form the majority of the Christian Scriptures (at least in the West) and that they are accepted as authoritative. So where do I go with this?
Firstly, while I accept that Paul was at least on occasion inspired (F.C. Happold identifies him as a Christian mystic), I ask myself whether the whole of what he wrote was inspired, and find that in at least one case he explicitly states that something he writes is his own opinion. Generally theologians have taken that to mean that wherever he doesn’t say that, he IS inspired, but I consider it to cast doubt on the inspiration of other parts of his writings.
Secondly, it is clear that in the relevant parts of Romans and to a lesser extent Galatians which found the “salvation history” narrative, he is doing theology rather than recounting a vision or, more explicitly, a revelation from God.
I therefore approach these bits of Paul as early theology, which I can criticise if I find his method lacking – and clearly it was lacking if only in that it failed to advert to a quite clear mechanism in the Hebrew Scriptures (Ezekiel 18 etc). However, I also find it lacking in that the portrait it paints of God is one where God delivers to Israel a huge set of rules and regulations (the Law) which is completely useless as an adjunct to the covenant he makes with Israel – and that would be a God I would find it very difficult to follow. God then compounds the situation by waiting through at least a millenium before putting forward a solution (and yes, I know that Christian theologians have attempted to make Jesus’ sacrifice retroactive, but that does not form consolation during their lifetimes for those who have observed the Law). I’m with Peter Enns in considering that Paul does not do anything like a good enough job of substantiating his claims that the Law is nevertheless good and useful and yes, I might even agree that Paul is “winging it”. But I do not think that Paul intended to give this impression, particularly in the light of his comments, Rom. 3:1: “Then what advantage has the Jew? Or what is the value of circumcision? Much, in every way” and Rom. 7:7, “What then should we say? That the law is sin? By no means!” .
So what is Paul actually attempting to say in his midrash here (because I am convinced that it is a midrash, i.e. an extension of scripture done according to at least loosely rabbinic principles)? It cannot be that, in truth, we are unable to avoid contravening the Mosaic Law (as this is demonstrably not the case), nor can it be that there is no mechanism for restoring ourselves to a right relationship with God absent faith in Jesus in any simple sense (as there was a perfectly adequate mechanism in the Hebrew Scriptures already).
I think the issue is this. Judaism is concerned, as per Rabbinic tradition and the New Perspective, with maintaining faithful inclusion in the Mosaic covenant which, by birth and (in the case of men) circumcision they are already part of (and, as a mark of devotion, doing it better and better); Paul is not talking about that. He is talking about freedom from the Yetzer ha-Ra, the evil impulse, which is what causes people to sin. Judaism accepts that humanity is subject to that, and that the resulting sin can be dealt with through teshuvah (repentance and restoration) even if the further “atoning” sacrifice is no longer available in the absence of the Temple (and, incidentally, the writer of Hebrews is putting Jesus’ death in the position of a once-for-all atoning sacrifice which deals with that absence, just in case the rabbinic arguments were insufficient; it should not in my view be read as indicating that it was absolutely necessary, as clearly under the Hebrew Scriptures it was not).
Paul, as I have said, was a mystic. Furthermore, he was a Christ-mystic, reading the base mystical experience as an experience specifically of Christ. He talks at length of “being in Christ” “There is therefore now no condemnation to them which are in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 8: 1) and, again, Gal 3. He talks equally about “Christ in us” (Gal. 2:20). This is, for Paul, an unitive experience; he perceives himself as united with Christ, and inasmuch as this is the case, he is immune from the yetzer ha’ra; a more modern Jew might say that he is identifying Christ with the yetzer ha’tov, the impulse towards good. As a God-mystic myself (my own experiences have not had any particular favour of being “of Christ”), this makes perfect sense; inasmuch as I can hold on to union with God, I do not have any impulse to sin. Of course, Paul also complains that on occasion he wishes to do good but in fact sins; I would identify this as being when he has lost his unitive connection for a time.
Paul is therefore aiming at an entirely different target from that which has commonly been thought; he is aiming at the perfection of the individual will such that it is in complete conformity with the Will of God (interpreted in his case as the Will of Christ). This, I am reasonably confident, his mystical experience delivered to him – and it was marvelous to him, just as a similar experience was marvelous to me, and it changed him radically, just as a similar experience did me.
However, I think he makes a mistake common to quite a lot of mystics, and one which I made myself for quite some time; he assumes that because his own experience is this, anyone else can have the same experience. Sadly, I have found with many years of trying that very few people appear to be able to have an absolute peak mystical experience; at least, not without a lifetime of effort.
I think at some point Paul also realised this, as he elsewhere gives instructions as to what the “fruits of the spirit” should be, and suggests that people should cultivate these. Those gripped by a peak mystical experience, the effects of which do not wear off quickly, would not need instruction. However, the other thing experience has taught me (and, drawing from this, it may also have taught Paul) is that the “act as if” principle does have some validity; if you act as if you’re spirit-filled, or in union with Christ, or in union with God, or (as I think Jesus was using a different term to describe the same condition) as a member of the Kingdom of God, eventually the outward actions form the inward reality.
And who knows, maybe the impulse to do the outward actions more and better will also grip you. Sounds almost Jewish, doesn’t it? But it isn’t “works righteousness”…