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?
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