Life of Holiness, Romans 8:12-25 (pp.394-420)
Posted by joespencer on July 1, 2013
This will be my last post to contribute to the project, so I’ll take a moment to say my thanks to Robert for organizing it. It’s been most worthwhile, and I’ve learned a great deal. I hope we can have more similarly successful reading groups here at Feast. It’s something we’ve tried several times without success. But this has been encouraging and insightful.
Okay, on to what Jim has to say about Romans 8:12-25. To put all my cards on the table, I’ve been looking forward to this part of the book for a long time. I’m in the thick of writing (when I’ve got time!) a book on hope, the first half or so of which is dedicated to a study of what Paul says about hope in Romans 1, 4, 5, and 8. I’ve benefited from Jim’s readings of Romans 1 and 5 (as well, though less obviously so, from his summary of Romans 4). I hoped to glean more still about hope in his reading of Romans 8. I could say that I’ve been disappointed, but it’d be unfair. Jim’s beginning from different presuppositions and different concerns that I was. That he says as little as he does about hope here is probably to be expected, given his focus on what it means to live the life of holiness.
So let me set my own obsessions aside and say a few things about what Jim does say on this part of Romans 8. Really, we’re working through two different sections of Jim’s treatment of Romans 8. He separates out as (relatively) independent blocks of text Romans 8:12-17 and Romans 8:18-25. I’ll take them in turn.
The thrust of Jim’s treatment of these verses is that it’s a very different thing to be a child than a slave. This idea is oddly, even ironically, presented, however, since it’s the child, not the slave, who suffers.
How is the difference between being-a-child and being-a-slave to be understood? Jim’s answer is that both are functions of being bound by law, but that the one (being-a-child) differs from the other (being-a-slave) in the way that it’s bound to law. Jim says: “According to Paul, the Christian message is not that there is no law or a new law, but that God has provided a way for us to fulfill the demands of the law, demands we cannot meet on our own. We meet those demands through grace—through the life possible in the Spirit—rather than through gritting our teeth, lifting ourselves by the bootstraps, and exerting our will to be obedient” (p. 397). To be a child rather than a slave is thus a matter of having the same law, but of having it in a different way. The law that holds for the child is, as Jim emphasizes, the law as it unfolds in a covenant relation, a kind of generalized recognition that “one is obliged to serve God” (p. 396).
How do we make sense of that difference? Jim says this: “When we do what we do from fear, we understand our relation to God in legalistic terms. We cannot avoid anxiety, for we believe that he has given us particular rules and that we are always in danger of failing to live up to those rules acceptably. We are always in danger of failing to meet God’s demands” (p. 399). This is helpful, but I wonder whether Jim hasn’t obscured an important difference. Might we say that the slave lives in fear, while the child lives in anxiety? To have the slave’s relation to God is to have a set of determinate rules, and so to fear the retribution that will come if one doesn’t keep all the rules. But to have the child’s relation to God is to have a kind of generalized expectation that one knows one can’t live up to but that organizes everyone one does. Perhaps?
Whether or not that’s right, Jim is clear that being-a-child is a matter of suffering, indeed, of suffering what Christ suffers. Jim clarifies: “He suffered infinitely, in other words, without measuring his suffering. He suffered for others. He suffered without blame or accusation. He suffered without being ashamed of his suffering” (p. 406). That’s the sort of suffering a child is to suffer, the sort of suffering a slave can’t suffer. To what extent is this sort of suffering to be separated from every form of anxiety? To what extent is it a kind of anxiety? That remains a question for me.
What is clear is that being-a-child is the key to understanding the life of holiness for Paul. And yet there’s something odd even about this. As Jim makes clear (see especially pp. 399-400), all being-a-child is really being-adopted. Even if we’re actually children in some literal sense, we’re still not the sort of children God’s interested in if we aren’t adopted as well. What does it mean to say that all being-a-child is being-adopted? (I won’t get excited here about Derridean worries about establishing paternity, etc., but I’m tempted!) There’s much to think about here as well.
But let’s get on to the second part.
I’ll begin here with a brief question. When Jim discusses the meaning of the KJV’s “creature” (but a better translation would be, simply, “creation,” as Jim points out), he says the following: “As we will see, he is creating a parallel with Eden, so I assume he has in mind the natural world in which we find ourselves” (p. 411). I think that’s right, broadly, but I wonder what exactly Jim means by “natural world.” There’s quite a bit of ambiguity about this phrase, ambiguity that can, I think, lead to some confusion. So, what’s the natural world in this context? To what extent is the createdness of creation in Jim’s purview when he speaks of the “natural world”? He does say “the natural world, the creation of God” on page 412, so it seems there’s a kind of equation there, but is the world’s createdness in view there? It just isn’t clear to me exactly what’s in question here; I could have used a bit more development just to get clear on the claim being made.
The image of the creation being made subject to vanity or futility is remarkable, I think. Jim takes the passage to be claiming that God was the one who subjected the creation to vanity, and that He did so through the Fall. He provides no major argument for this interpretation, but it’s worth noting that there’s a great deal of debate in the commentaries on this point. Is it God who subjects the creation to vanity, or is it Adam/Eve, or is it Satan, or is it human beings generally, or is it the Messiah, or what? And when does this subjection take place—at the expulsion from Eden, or when humanity turns to violence, or when the flood recedes, or when the Law of Moses was given, or when Israel turns from its commission, or when the Messiah appears, or when the Messiah is killed, or what? This is a very difficult point of interpretation.
In my own reading, I’ve been increasingly inclined to assume that it’s indeed God who subjects the creation to vanity, and that He does so at the moment of messianic triumph. That’s a little different reading from Jim’s, so I find myself wondering about what exactly is at stake in the difference. At the very least, it would make a difference concerning when and why hope dawns, when and why suffering becomes a reality. Does hope and all its attendant suffering begin from the Fall, or does it dawn in a peculiar way with the triumph of the Messiah? Does all of creation groan in the travail of labor from the beginning, or do the cyclical pains of labor begin only when the Messiah arrives?
Some of Jim’s own discussion points me in the latter direction. He has a very nice discussion of the tension between completion and incompletion on page 417: “There are various ways one could translate this—’we are saved,’ ‘we were saved,’ ‘we have been saved.’ In Greek, the important point is not the temporal aspect of the verb, but that the action in question is understood as a whole rather than as something that is in process.” Or again, on page 419: “We find ourselves between the completion of the aorist tense and the not-yet-complete of the future, in the time between Christ’s act of atonement and the time of our final salvation. Our time is always that of the kairos, the time of decision.” The experience of being a Christian is, on Jim’s reading, the experience of in/completion. It’s to be granted the promise of a certain completion, the conviction of a certain completion, but it’s also to be caught in the incompletion of that completion caught up in the structure of the promise.
Doesn’t this sort of thing suggest that there’s a unique sort of suffering that comes in the wake of the Messiah’s triumph? Doesn’t it suggest that there’s a unique era of hope after the Messiah has come? If so, I wonder if there isn’t a way that the subjection of the world to futility isn’t fully realized until the Messiah has come and gone. Only with the Messiah’s advent, perhaps, does it become possible to recognize quite fully that the created order will never be sufficient, that there’s to be another earth and another heaven. Only with the Messiah’s advent does one develop a genuine sense of hopelessness regarding the possibilities of the fallen/created world. Only with the Messiah’s advent does one see that “the figure of this world is passing away,” as Paul puts it in 1 Corinthians 7.
Perhaps. What thoughts do all of you have on this point in Paul?
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