Life of Holiness, Romans 8:26-30 (pp. 421-437)
Posted by Robert C. on July 11, 2013
I’m going to discuss this week’s reading by addressing two major, interrelated themes. First, I’ll discuss weakness and the redemptive manner that weakness is treated in the Gospel. Second, I’ll discuss the plan or purpose of the Gospel and the manner in which our existence can be understood as teleological.
On page 422, Jim notes that the word translated “infirmities” in verse 26 is actually singular. Jim then links this idea to our nothingness, per King Benjamin’s discourse, and our covenant to bear one another’s burdens at baptism, per Mosiah 18:8-9 (Jim implicitly links the “burdens” in this scripture to weakness).
Jim then goes on to elaborate on Paul’s discussion of weakness in prayer, and how we are not told that the Spirit will tell us what to pray for (pace 3 Nephi 19:24, I would add), but that the Spirit will be with us in our weakness in prayer (p. 423). Excellent point.
Finally, Jim links this discussion of weakness with Ether 12:27 emphasizing ways that these scriptures can be understood as consistent with each other (p. 424).
This discussion reminds me of 2 Corinthians 12, especially verses 5 and 12, where Paul says, “I glory . . . in my infirmities” and God says “my strength is made perfect in weakness.” I haven’t really studied this verse in much depth, so I don’t know if the following interpretation is justified or not, but I’ve been inclined to think of Paul as suggesting here that the distance between perfection and Paul’s weakness is a kind of measure of God’s grace. So, the greater the weakness, the greater is God’s grace. But I’d like to think about these ideas more deeply at some point, since I like this way of thinking about grace, but I suspect it’s an inadequate conception at best, perhaps even a dangerous concpetion (because it’s too “economic”).
Jim’s gives a somewhat brief discussion of the Romans 8:28 phrase, “all things work together for good to them that love God.” Since I was quite curious about this verse, I did some extra digging and thinking about the link between this verse and a theology of weakness. Dunn’s commentary is quite interesting from this perspective:
The thought as expressed here has a certain triteness—the final consolation of the decent man who finds that circumstances continually conspire against his best endeavors. Similar sentiments were already current in both Jewish and Greco-Roman thought, and Paul’s Roman audiences would probably be familiar with the sentiment as a fairly commonplace religious maxim. . . . [But] the idea of loving God is untypical of Greco-Roman religiosity, while being characteristically Jewish. Paul therefore draws the vaguer hope of all religious piety within the circle of the more distinctive Jewish faith in the one God. The vaguer, more speculative piety of Greco-Roman religiosity is given clearer definition and more substantial foundation in the Jewish trust in God as Creator and Father.
What I find interesting here is the way Dunn describes Paul’s personalizing appropriation of this “commonplace religious maxim,” adapting this maxim to the Jewish conception of a “loving God.” This reminds me of the personalized nature of God’s love in, for example, the single soul that repents (D&C 18:15), or Christ’s knowing how to succor his people (Alma 7:12). And yet, “the good” in Romans 8:28 seems to connote a common(/communal) good, not just a personal good (the TDNT has a nice discussion of this, esp. with respect to the Hebrew word towb). So, in this verse, I find a fascinating set of themes at work, weaving God’s redemptive work through all of creation for the personal and communal good of all.
Inasmuch as these themes work according to a divinely appointed plan, as we would be inclined to think of it in Mormon terms, this leads to the second theme I thought was interesting in this week’s reading.
On page 429, Jim discusses the phrase “in accordance with his purpose” from verse 28, and explains his substitution of the word “plan” for “purpose” in his alternate translation.
This is a brilliant move, methinks, because of the frequent use of the term “plan” in Mormonism. To me, this Pauline inflection on the term “plan” is very rich. Rather than thinking about the plan of salvation, or God’s plan for our lives as a kind of script with preestablished goals and milestones that we check off a list, thinking about God’s plan in terms of his purpose suggests a very different kind of plan.
I confess part of the reason I’m interested in this recasting of the term “plan” is because I’ve become quite interested in non-instrumental conceptions of ethical teleology. This is, roughly speaking, an idea I take to be very similar to what I think Jim is ultimately getting at in his frequent discussion of the difference of living “by the Spirit rather than by sets of rules” (p. 398). That is, inasmuch as the Spirit directs us toward that which is good (again, think tawb in Hebrew, and the scriptural instances of this phrase), but a good that is irreducible to rules of propositions, then I think we can talk about the life of the disciple as being teleological, but without such a life falling prey to problematic, instrumentalizing ways of living or relating to others. It is in this light that I understand several of the other points that Jim makes.
When Jim discusses predestination, foreordination, and the call of discipleship (vv. 29-30, pp. 430ff), he emphasizes the Hebrew conception of knowledge. On my reading(/appropriation) of Jim’s comments, what is key about a Hebrew conception of knowledge is that it is non-propositional. Because of this, there is a not a determinate state of affairs that is declared ahead of time. Rather, God’s plan “set[s] limits in advance” (p. 432). I think this difference is significant, between a positive or exact propositional kind knowledge versus a more negative sense of there being limits set in advance. This is, again on my reading, what makes God’s plan teleological but non-instrumental.
I really like Jim’s linking Paul’s discussion of “image” (p. 434, v. 29) with Alma 5:14. I was recently at a (4th of July) fair where an artist was drawing cartoonish portraits. What I think is interesting about these “images” is that they leave room for artistic interpretation. This is yet another way to think about teleology (the likeness of an image) in a way that preserves room for agency, flexibility and creativity.
The final point I’d like to mention is Jim’s discussion of “mind” in verse 27. Jim discusses the connotations of the Greek word phronema in terms of intentionality (p. 425). Jim also says that “because God knows our desires and our intentions, he can intercede for us, making the intentions of our hearts align with the Father’s intentions.” I especially like Jim’s use of the term “desires” alongside “intentions.” This, on my reading, underscores the linkage between the teleology of the Gospel and our own desires (after all, if our intentions are embodied, they are desires, not just rational intentions).
If we are receptive to the Gospel, then we align our intentions and desires with God’s, and this brings us into the “unity of purpose” (p. 426) that is characteristic of the God and the Spirit.
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