Feast upon the Word Blog

A blog focused on LDS scriptures and teaching

The Life of Holiness: Introduction

Posted by Robert C. on March 1, 2013

(See the introductory post to this series here.)

In the introduction, Jim first addresses some helpful background issues pertaining to the to Romans (pp. 1-6); then he discusses the structure and over-arching message of Romans (pp. 7-10); then he touches on some substantive thematic issues (pp. 11-20). I’ll first offer a quick summary with some thoughts on these first two sections. Then, I’ll discuss the substantive issues Jim raises, focusing first on faith and works, then on covenant. Finally, I’ll add a couple other thoughts about my own interest in these themes, and some other themes like universalism.

Context and Structure of Romans

Jim first provides some background as to what scholars have determined about the the date, setting, audience, and historical context of Romans (pp. 1-2). He also makes some interesting comments about Paul’s writing style: it’s not a high literary composition, as judged by classical literary standards of the time; notwithstanding this plainness, Paul’s writing sophisticated (pp. 2-3). So, we can learn a lot about Paul’s message by paying careful attention to the following: the literary devices he employs; the logical structure of the epistle; and the engagement with the Jewish tradition that Paul makes use of (based on his upbringing and training).

Whereas other epistles address particular problems of particular congregations with which Paul was familiar, Romans is written to congregations Paul never visited. “Thus, Romans is a doctrinal exposition rather than a response to a particular problem among the saints in Rome. Nevertheless . . . Paul’s letter is not merely an abstract treatise” (p. 4). Paul will address specific errors, doctrines, and scriptures, and it is important to remember that Paul is writing to believers, not unbelievers (pp. 4-5).

I would add that, because of the doctrinal nature of Romans, and its address to believers—and, thus, it’s exposition of how to live as a Christian—Romans makes a good candidate for being the single most important book to study for gaining an understanding of Christian doctrine, and thus Mormonism’s relationship to (and embededness within) Christianity more generally.

In the remainder of the introduction, Jim begins to address the substance of Paul’s message. I will discuss these issues using my own categories and order, rather than closely following the manner Jim introduces them.

Faith and Works

Clearly, the nature and relationship between faith and works is an important but controversial doctrine for Christians. It is also a central doctrine in Mormonism, though I think it’s a doctrine we frequently misunderstand—both how the doctrine has been taught by our own scriptures and leaders, and how Christians understand the doctrine themselves. One of my key interests in studying Romans more closely is to better understand this doctrine regarding the nature and relationship of faith and works.

Jim refers somewhat obliquely to this same issue when he says that in the first subdivision of Romans (chapters 1-8), “Paul takes great care to show us the problem of justice” (p. 11). I like Jim’s use of the term “justice” here, largely because of the social and political resonances that the term has today. In modern society, we are oftentimes inclined to separate questions regarding individual and/or private belief from questions regarding communal and/or public life, and doing so can contribute to a kind of fragmentation in our lives and in our society. So, the linkages Jim suggests across the different divisions in Romans have important lessons for helping us overcome problems of fragmentation and alienation in our own contemporary lives and communities.

Jim suggests that part of his motivation in studying Romans was sparked by the question of wanting to live obediently but being unable to do so (p. 8). Again, I think this question can be posed in both an individual register and a communal register. And, in both registers, it is a very pressing, existentially relevant, and interesting question to ponder. Romans is, in this sense, a great piece of literature that can be profitably studied by anyone, regardless of their belief or unbelief in God. It is thus interesting to note that Paul’s writing has received a lot of attention by many atheistic philosophers, especially in Europe, over the past couple of decades. Their analysis is remarkably insightful, in my opinion, and I’ll provide links and thoughts regarding books by Alain Badiou and Giorgio Agamben in particular, when I have more time. For now, however, I think studying Romans more closely has the potential of helping us understand how to live better among people with very diverse beliefs (and non-beliefs).

Anyway, as a preview of the answer Jim has come to, regarding the problem of not being able to live according to our desires, he writes, “if salvation is not a reward for our obeidence, then . . . one might be tempted to conclude . . . there is not reason to be obedient. However, that conclusion . . . denies the gracious and sacrificial character of Christ’s atonement” (p. 17). Instead, we obey “in recognition and commemoration of what [God] has done for us” (p. 17). This framing of the central message of Romans reminds me of D&C 88:33 which strikes me as a nice encapsulation of the way Jim is framing Paul’s thesis: “For what doth it profit a man if a gift is bestowed upon him, and he receive not the gift? Behold, he rejoices not in that which is given unto him, neither rejoices in him who is the giver of the gift.”

For Mormons, in important part properly receiving God’s gift of salvation entails making and keeping covenants.

Covenant and Other Themes

Jim nicely links his treatment of faith and works, as it’s treated in Romans 1-8 (as I’m reading Jim), to the theme of covenant in Romans 9-15. Romans 9-11 is a treatment of covenant as it pertains to Israel’s history. Romans 12-15 explores implications for how we who are believers are to live in response to God’s demonstrated fidelity to that covenant. Jim establishes a link between these two parts by emphasizing the Greek word oun as it occurs in Romans 12:1: because God has been faithful to his covenant to Israel in the past, despite Israel’s disobedience (and hence unworthiness), Paul urges us to rejoice, and be to faithful in remembering God’s gift of salvation. And, as discussed above, we enact this remembrance through our faithfulness (to God and others).

I’m intrigued by the theme of covenant for many reasons. I don’t expect Jim will discuss covenant explicitly much more in this book, since covenant is the central theme of Romans 9-11, not chapters 1 or 5-8 which Jim will be focusing on. Nevertheless, this emphasis on the theme of covenant in Romans is something I will be keeping in the back of my mind for the following reason: with covenant in the background, and Mormonism’s particular emphasis on making and keeping covenants, I think Romans 5-8 can be read as a manual for how we overcome the problem of “heteronomy” not only in ourselves but also in our own relationships with others (e.g., our spouses, fellow Saints, and our neighbors). By heteronomy I mean the problem of taking something imposed on us from the outside, like the requirements of law, and transforming that requirement into something that is more closely aligned with our own (autonomous) desires.

What Jim has me wondering about, then, is how we can truly be faithful to our covenants. How we can do this in a way that is genuine, heartfelt and sincere? How can we overcome the frequent and inevitable tension between our own desires and the (righteous) desires of others that we have an obligation to be faithful to? These are questions that a careful study of Romans can help us answer.

Also, this thematic relationship between covenant and faith and works raises the question of how to preserve unity in a diverse community. I see this as the communal analog to the more individualistic problem described above (i.e., the problem of heteronomy). A Pauline theme that has received a fair bit of attention by philosophers recently, and that greatly interests me, is Paul’s emphasis on universalism. Jim touches on this idea when discussing Paul’s writing about the Jews and Gentiles (see pp. 5-6). Again, I’m not sure this theme will come up explicitly very frequently in the body of the book, but I’m inclined to read with a view toward applying Paul’s insights in chapters 1, 5 and 6 for navigating tensions not only within ourselves, but also in our relationships with diverse others in our various social and political communities.

Well, those are some of my thoughts. What did you like most about Jim’s introduction? What themes are you most interested in paying attention to as we read Jim’s book together?

13 Responses to “The Life of Holiness: Introduction”

  1. Excellent summary, Robert!

  2. cherylem said

    Thank you Robert for getting us started on The Life of Holiness.

    I want to go back to something Jim writes in the preface. Jim is self-effacing in the Preface and in the Introduction, reminding us that he is an amateur and not a New Testament Scholar in the academic sense. Those of us who know Jim either personally or through Internet conversations know that his self-effacement is real, and his disciplined, careful, thoughtful, quiet study is also real. Therefore I know that there is a depth represented by years of thinking and studying underlying this statement in the Preface: “It is only a personal opinion, but I believe that, in general, we pay too little heed to scriptures’ words themselves, even when we are ostensibly reading or discussing them. We tend to move too quickly to ideas and what we think we already know. Hyperbolically, I could say that we rarely mingle the philosophies of men with scripture because we seldom get to the scriptures; we seldom get beyond the philosophies of men.”

    I believe this will be a rich discussion encouraged by Jim’s thoughts on Romans and I am grateful Robert suggested and organized it.

    Regarding the Introduction, I think that Robert has given us an excellent start. I think introductions in general deserve to be read before and after reading a book. Jim’s reasons for outlining Romans as he does is clear in the Introduction, and will be more clear as we make our way through his – and Paul’s – text. I have just a few comments to add to Robert’s, specifically in reply to his last paragraph:

    “Well, those are some of my thoughts. What did you like most about Jim’s introduction? What themes are you most interested in paying attention to as we read Jim’s book together?”

    I really liked the reminder that faith means trust. Last Sunday in Gospel Doctrine, and in Sacrament Meeting, we were reminded that a first principle of the Gospel is “faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.” Rehearsing in my mind examples that were given, and changing the word “faith” to “trust”, I have understood faith in a new way.

    I also liked the discussion regarding obedience and Jim’s emphasis that salvation is not a reward for our obedience, without discounting the importance of obedience. But if, Jim asks, salvation is not a reward for obedience, why are we obedient? Jim suggests that obedience represents our fidelity – our faithfulness – our trust in God and God’s covenant with us.

    This is not an academic question for me. I remember very well a time in my own life when things went very wrong with a couple of my children. I remember feeling angry and betrayed – I had tried so hard to be obedient, I had tried and given everything I had to be a mother in Zion (even when being female in the church represented a harsh self-denial for me in ways perhaps only other women can understand), and the only reward I wanted . . . no the reward I deserved . . . was for my children to be full of faith, spiritual, or, at the least, to be okay. My sacrifice of self, my obedience to the least commandments, surely I could expect the appropriate reward: salvation and safety for myself and all my children.

    When this did not universally happen as I thought it was supposed to, I had to rethink obedience and God’s love and promises entirely. Having been through that process and come out (or perhaps still coming out) the other side, this discussion of obedience and faith, and the impossibility of being truly obedient, in the Introduction interested me deeply.

    There was also a time in my life that I hated Paul and his writings. I think I have shared this with Jim before though he may not remember it. I think a lot of wrong has been done in Paul’s name, and it took me some time before I could scrape away my prejudices and resentments enough to study Paul for himself, and not study him for the ways Christian culture interpreted some of his writings over many hundreds of years. In my own comments during these discussions I may return to some of these teachings and how they have affected people I love.

    I would be someone other than myself if I did not point out Jim’s comments about Romans 8:16-17 on page 8. These are the verses that Jim says started his study of Romans so I’ll quote them here:

    “The Spirit itself beareth witness with our spirit, that we are the children of God: And if children, then heirs; heirs of God, and joint-heirs with Christ; if so be that we suffer with him, that we may be also glorified together.”

    These words worked on Jim enough so that we now have the book we are discussing. However, the next paragraph was a little startling to me:

    “Like most other Latter-day Saints, I see a clear reference to our divine spiritual paternity and to the potential that paternity offers us for life with our Father.”

    Actually when I read those verses, I do not think of paternity at all. I thought of parentage. I do not think of God as solely male but the divine combination of male/female. So that I would restate Jim’s words as: “I see a clear reference to our divine spiritual parentage.”

    To think only in terms of paternity denies me a pattern, a parent to follow who looks like me and thinks like me, who is embodied like me, a guide who tells me she has been where I have been and she also has passed through the challenges of life and can tell me I will surely arrive safely on the other side. So I read verses 16-17 through that strange kind of female interpretation that many of us have to use in church in order to have the words apply to us as we are gendered. I have come to do this so automatically that when Jim’s paragraph mentioned paternity only I actually experienced surprise.

    So do not any of you be surprised if in the course of our discussions I bring up a woman-centered view again.

    Which brings me to my last point, which is the carefulness that Jim uses regarding the LDS lens. He tells us he will [faithfully] use the KJV, with his own translation side by side. He references our own unique texts in making points about grace, about obedience, about faith, and closes his Introduction by mentioning “participation in the ordinances prescribed for our salvation.”

    This then, is a faithful reading of Romans. Jim is telling us that we can trust him as a guide in our in-depth study of this New Testament text, and as we discuss what it means to life a life of holiness.

    I look forward to continuing.

  3. Jim F. said

    Cheryl, excellent point: I ought to have said “parenting” rather than “paternity.” I try to keep such things in mind but–obviously–I don’t always succeed. Keep keeping me honest.

  4. joespencer said

    There’s much to respond to in these first pages of the book. I’d like to revisit the preface and introduction to Romans 1 (Jim’s previous book, largely incorporated into this one) before getting to far in my reflections. But I’d like to say a few things already.

    I deeply appreciate Jim’s comments on page viii of the preface—his hope to provoke LDS NT scholars to give their attention to offering “their responses to the texts of our scriptures as well as to their histories,” his hyperbolic point that “we seldom get beyond the philosophies of men” to the scriptures at all, his insistence that “we not leave it solely to scholars to think deeply about the scriptures,” and his emphasis on our task to “do more than read the Book of Mormon for fifteen minutes each day.” All excellent and inspiring points.

    I take the following bit from the introduction to be the key to Jim’s entire book—without, of course, having read the book yet: “I cannot emphasize this point enough: Paul is writing to and for those who are already converted to Christianity. He is preaching to believers to help them understand what it means to be a believer, what they must do and be now that they are converted. Contrary to what some teach today, Paul is not telling us what one must do to become a Christian” (p. 5). This, I suspect, lies behind Jim’s decision to focus on Romans 5-8, as well as behind the title of the book: The Life of Holiness. I’m most curious to see how this unfolds now that I think I see what Jim’s doing as a whole—though we’ve got a lot of material to cover before we come to Romans 5-8!

    Robert has already said a bit about how Jim emphasizes the covenantal themes of Romans 9-15, but I’ll confess that I felt like Jim only came around to that emphasis, and then perhaps reluctantly. The first time he discusses Romans 9-11, for instance, he says that “Paul digresses briefly to discuss what this [the life of holiness in Romans 5-8] means with regard to the Jews and their relation to the Gentiles” (p. 7). Yes, Jim goes on to suggest that the relationship between the two “halves” of the letter are more balanced than this suggests, but this first presentation—which Jim doesn’t explicitly contest, since there are several pages between this first presentation and his subsequent, more nuanced discussion (starting on p. 10)—left me a bit baffled. “Briefly digresses”? Protestant readers of Romans have been coming around—rather slowly, to be sure—to the recognition that Romans 9-11 especially is key to the interpretation of the letter, and Jewish readers (Mark Nanos especially!) have shown that it may be best to see Romans 1-8 as the relatively dispensable half of the letter. (Nanos argues convincingly, in fact, that the letter actually does address particular problems in the Roman congregation, problems that have everything to do with the Israelite/Gentile question.) Hence, even after reading the remainder of the introduction, I still found myself wondering whether Jim’s comments on Romans 9-15 are here only embryonic, an indication that he began to worry just at the end of the project about the advisability of privileging Romans 5-8 (or Romans 1-8 more generally). At any rate, I worry a bit about the way Jim positions the role of especially Romans 9-11: “if [God] can save Israel though they have abandoned him—which he promises to do—then we too can be saved though we too have abandoned our Father” (p. 15). This metaphorization/spiritualization of the covenant theme of Romans 9-11, while not failing to note the importance of the second half of the letter, subordinates all talk of the covenant to the life of holiness outlined in Romans 5-8. The question that led Paul to declare his willingness to be cut off eternally from Christ, if only it would make a difference for the people of the covenant, here becomes just an illustrative instance of God’s fidelity. I’m nervous about that.

    There’s my one nit to pick, and it’s likely one I see only because it touches on a theme I work obsessively on: the history and status of the covenant (not covenants in general) in scripture. Certainly I want to be clear that my point of criticism is anything but a rejection of the premise of Jim’s book. Indeed, I’m more than intrigued—as I’ve already stated—at how Jim proposes to read Romans 5-8: as a kind of outline of what it means to live the life of faith. I’ve been deeply instructed by other things Jim has written on those chapters (see his discussion of Romans 7 in Faith, Philosophy, Scripture, for instance), and I anticipate being so instructed again. I hope my worry doesn’t sound ungrateful.

    Robert asks about what themes we’re interested in addressing as we work through the book. I don’t know that I’ve got any in particular that I’ll be looking for. I’m more ready to see where Jim wants to take us than itching to drag Jim along with me. (That can only sound disingenuous after what I said above about the covenant. Drat. But I swear I only addressed the covenant because of the way Jim talks about it!) So I won’t propose any particular themes to address. I am interested, like Robert, in social and political questions raised by Paul’s writings, so I’m likely to follow Jim especially eagerly if and when he goes in those directions, but I won’t press the issue. And I’m also interested in the philosophical reception of Paul’s writings—by Badiou and Agamben, yes, but by many others as well—but I suspect they won’t prove particularly relevant to Jim’s project; if they do, it’ll be only in reflection on Jim’s Paul, I’d guess.

    At any rate, my thanks to Jim for producing the book in the first place, and also to Robert for getting the reading group started!

    • joespencer said

      Well, I had a little time to read the preface and introduction from Romans 1, and that helped to clarify things for me. The “Paul digresses briefly” bit appears in the earlier publication, and it’s more or less all that’s said about Romans 9-11 in the introduction to that volume. It was carried over into the introduction of the new volume without alteration, but then all the subsequent material about Romans 9-15 has been added. It would be more charitable of me, then, to see a kind of tension at work in the introduction, not a facile reading. My apologies for moving too quickly….

      • Jim F. said

        When I rewrote the introduction (which I did before I had completed the work on 5-8), I ought to have at least changed the word “digression” to something else.

  5. joespencer said

    Now to say a few things about the preface and introduction from Jim’s earlier Romans 1, parts of which have been copied over, more or else without alteration, into The Life of Holiness.

    The preface to Romans 1 is a good deal more involved than the preface to The Life of Holiness. I’m curious about why Jim chose to simplify things for the new volume—whether he feels that some things have changed among Latter-day Saints, or whether he feels that the nature of the new book is such that a different sort of preface is called for, or what. Perhaps Jim will chime in with a few words about that? In particular, I find it interesting that so much of the earlier preface focuses on how to read scripture. I also find it interesting that it’s not to Romans 8:16-17 that he points in the earlier preface so much as the theme of grace more generally.

    I’m also curious to be reminded that the project had been originally to do three volumes: one on Romans 1, one on Romans 6-8 (something like The Life of Holiness), and something on Romans 12.

    • Jim F. said

      Yes, I thought that I would do something on Romans 12 or 12-15, but that became too big a project. I don’t have it in me to do it, at least not right now. Perhaps some time later.

  6. James Gartner said

    This is not at all meant to beat up on Jim for his use of “paternity” vs. “parentage” – AT ALL! I have not yet read Jim’s introduction (waiting for the arrival of the book). Having said that, there’s no question that had I read the introduction, I would have completely glossed over what Cheryl honed in on: Paternity vs. Parentage. –An insensitive male, no doubt.

    –I think it takes someone (Cheryl) who is sensitive from the POV of a woman. Her insight is good. But for me, it’s beyond just a “woman-centered view,” to use Cheryl’s words. Paternity minimizes the full spectrum of Godhood that affects the male as well (again, this is not a criticism of Jim—rather, Cheryl has got me thinking on this as a side issue). Paternity minimizes the differences offered up between Fatherhood and Motherhood (capitalization intended). I don’t mean to be political, but I think there is a de-sexing in our culture today where a distinction between male and female gender becomes irrelevant (which maybe Cheryl herself does (?) when she writes, “I do not think of God as solely male but the divine combination of male/female”). There is great beauty in our differences and what these differences offer. Both here, and in the eternities.

    Hopefully, I have not created a tangent with this post. I have not been a part of these discussions before – so please excuse this is if I am off-point.

  7. [...] Jim F. on The Life of Holiness: Introduction [...]

  8. [...] Overview (pp. 1-20) [-Robert [...]

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