The Life of Holiness, Romans 5:3-11 (pp. 210-237)
Posted by joespencer on April 29, 2013
Jim’s commentary on Romans 1 has made clear again and again that we’d be dealing with the life of holiness in Romans 5-8. For that reason, I’m now reading with a careful eye to what it means to live in a holy way. I’ll pick up a few scattered remarks in the commentary on 5:3-11 that are instructive in a variety of ways, but I think it’d be best if I begin with and spend the bulk of my own time here on one passage in particular—the one from which I learned the most about what it might mean to speak of the life of holiness. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it’s the discussion of the phrase “his life” from verse 10, found on pages 234-235. I’ll begin there, and then I’ll make a few comments on other points in this week’s reading.
Life As Such
Here’s verse 10 as Jim renders it in his “alternate translation”:
For if, being enemies of God, we were reconciled to him by the death of his Son, how much more certain it is that, having been reconciled, we will be saved by his life.
You can read Jim’s comments on the structure of argumentation (a minori ad maius), on the nature of reconciliation, etc. I’ll focus here just on what Jim has to say about the phrase “his life,” that thing by which we’ll be saved (rather than reconciled, which is accomplished by Christ’s death). (For those serious about understanding this distinction, I’d recommend, in addition to Jim’s comments, Alain Badiou’s very helpful discussion of this theme in his book, Saint Paul, pp. 65-74.) If we’re to live lives of holiness, what can we learn from Christ’s life?
Jim begins where we’d expect him to: “It seems obvious that this phrase ['his life'] could refer to Christ’s mortal ministry and, therefore, to the teachings he gave and the example he set. Or it could refer to his resurrection and his subsequent life with the Father, to the fact that he is not subject to death. Or, of course, it could also refer to both” (p. 234). All this, as Jim says, “seems obvious.” If we’re going to think about what we might learn from the life of Jesus, we automatically think either of His mortal ministry (what might we learn from His example?) or of the manner of living that characterizes Him now (what might we learn from His perfection?). But then Jim gives us this important clarification: “It is significant that Paul uses the word zoe. Greek has two words, zoe and bios, for which we have only one, life. Zoe refers to the physical aspect of being alive. We could translate the word as ‘life force,’ the force in a being that makes it a living, moving thing. . . . As such, it is not the same as bios, for the latter refers to the span of an individual’s life and what fills that span: I am a living person, in other words, I have life (zoe), but during some particular amount of time I live the life (bios) of a son, husband, father, and neighbor; I have a particular profession and particular hobbies and interests” (p. 234). Where’s the surprise? The Greek word for “life” in this text does not refer to a way of life; it refers rather to life as such, to bare life. And it’s that life of Christ that is to save us. Hence Jim’s next line, where the surprise is presented bluntly: “Perhaps Paul uses the word zoe because it suggests that the way Jesus lived, his bios, is not what saves us” (p. 235).
What’s the implication for living lives of holiness? Well, I find myself struck here by a certain connection with a contemporary Italian thinker, Giorgio Agamben. It’d take too much time to go into Agamben’s work in any detail, but it’s worth saying that he emphasizes the way that zoe, in its predicatelessness, has been connected consistently in Western thought with the idea of the holy or the sacred: bare life is sacred life, holy life. And Agamben doesn’t fail to link this idea up with Saint Paul. In a variety of places, he ties the idea of bare/holy life up with Paul’s discussions of God’s call, a call that—according especially to the first letter to the Corinthians—calls human beings into holiness and thus away from every quality or qualification. The life of holiness, on Agamben’s reading, is zoe, a certain imitation of the saving zoe of Christ. Agamben might well say of Christ, like Jim does, that “as his resurrection shows, his is the power of living; he is the source of life, zoe” (p. 235). This is a theme in Paul that deserves a good deal more attention; it’s one I’ve just begun to pursue myself.
To live the life of holiness: “To imitate Christ, then, would not be merely to imitate his bios. It would be to partake in his zoe, something that we can receive from him but that we cannot give ourselves. Presumably, if we partake in his zoe, then we will also live his bios” (p. 235). We should keep an eye, as we work through the rest of Jim’s book, on how this life of holiness unfolds, and not just on what it means to live righteously.
Other Quick Points
Let me just jot down a few quick notes about other points in this week’s reading that deserve mention.
(1) I said a few things last week in my comment on Cheryl’s post about Jim’s discussion of hope. He adds one further clarification in this week’s reading that I think deserves our attention: “Unlike the usual view of happiness, Christian hope does not think that we would be better off if all our suffering were eliminated” (p. 211). There’s much to be learned about from a hope that doesn’t avoid suffering—in fact which, according to Paul, results in part from suffering. How do we understand hope on the Christian model in light of this notion?
(2) Jim points out that the Holy Ghost is mentioned for the first time in Romans 5:5 since its appearance in Romans 1:4. He notes further that “it will become a major theme in Romans 8, where it is the answer to the problem of the conflict between the flesh and the spirit” (p. 218). Because the Holy Ghost plays a crucial role in giving shape to the life of holiness, we ought to keep a careful eye on how Paul develops the role it plays in this stretch of his letter. Jim notes that at this early point in Romans 5-8, Paul discusses the Holy Ghost in order to answer the following question: “How does our Heavenly Father pour out his love on us?” (p. 218).
(3) Jim quotes what may be the most beautiful passage from the Book of Mormon: Mosiah 4:11-12. It’s a helpful cross reference, but it’s a text we ought to dwell on often regardless of how it might clarify Paul’s message. I recommend reading it again and again—and living in light of it! (See p. 221.)
(4) In Romans 5:7, Jim finds occasion to point out the fact that Jesus’ actions are ultimately at odds with the idea of the (Greek) hero. That’s an important point, though it might seem like philosophical quibbling to many. Why is it important? At the very least because there’s nothing actually tragic about the plan of salvation: Christ doesn’t resolve some kind of tragic contradiction, nor does he allow satisfy some kind of cosmic order through His sacrifice. “He is not a hero because what he did transcends heroism” (p. 225). These clarifications may be important in light of how much talk there seems to have been in recent years in the Church’s youth programs concerning the need for “modern heroes,” etc. Perhaps we’re collectively missing the point.
(5) Jim very nicely emphasizes Paul’s “frequent use of verbs that begin with the prefix syn-” (p. 226). Pauling being is almost always being-with. Perhaps I’m particularly struck because I’ve recently been reading Stanislas Breton’s book on Paul, and he similarly emphasizes Paul’s use of prepositions like this. In addition to being-with, Breton highlights being-in (being in Christ, for instance, usually the marker of what’s called Paul’s mysticism), being-of (the communal aspect of Paul’s thought is important), and being-toward (or being-for: purpose and zeal have their place here). There’s much to learn from these prepositions, and Jim’s emphasis on being-with may be particularly important. What happens to being when it’s predicateless (see the discussion of life-as-such above) but prepositional (with, in, of, toward/for)?
Those are my thoughts and some indications for further discussion. I’m interested to see what you all have to say!
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