This is a letter which I wrote to my church. I’ve marked it up a little with html, but essentially its what I wrote.
All Christians go through cycles, I am sure. As you may have gathered from my other recent letter, at the moment I am having some difficulties with the Faith. As the only friends I have in the world are Christians, I am keen not to be entirely alienated from them. I’m writing to you because, well, I’m a member of Dickson AM. If I ought to be writing to someone else, let me know.
I think I shall also CC this to Louise, as Stu does not have an email.
When one has some difficulties with the essentials, one turns to Romans, because Romans is where the basics of Christianity are spelt out. I read Romans last night and was struck by a couple of things that didn’t jell. I’ll try to go through them in this letter. I’m not sure how to go about it, so I might write a running summary of the book and stop when I get to a bit that I want to comment on. My comments are in [brackets].
Hello, I’m really looking forward to coming to Rome. God is angry at mankind, because they know perfectly well that he exists, but won’t acknowledge him. So God let them go their own way, becoming homosexuals and doing other bad things.
[I suppose the first point is that you and I both know that there are whole bunches of perfectly decent atheists out there, who are not full of envy, murder, strife etc. Yes, being good is not enough, but why make such a point of the bad things that people do if the primary sin is unbelief? Also: why rant about homosexuality like this? Jesus never did. There are tons worse things – like denying justice to the poor. What’s the big deal about homosexuality?]
You have no excuse, because you are just as bad. God is kind to you to lead you to repentance. Because you reject that kindness, you are making it hotter for yourself eventually.
[2:9-10 is fun. In the same breath, Paul states that the Jew comes first and that God has no favouritism.]
If you don’t know the law, you don’t die under it. If you do, you do. But if you don’t have the law, you do anyway because of your conscience.
[So if you don’t know the law, your are judged by your conscience. Ok. Side point: Hitler genuinely believed he was doing the right thing by getting ridding Europe of the Jews (who crucified Jesus). Would he be condemned for not doing it, had he failed to try? This is a mischievous point and I don’t really need an answer.]
It’s not enough to just know the law; you have to do it. So you Jews, don’t be so smug. Jews who do not obey the law are not “true Jews”.
[This is a set-up for Christians claiming descent from Abraham later. It’s a variant of the true Scotsman fallacy.
“A true Scot would never do such a thing.”
“But Fred did, and he’s Scottish.”
“Ah, but he isn’t a true Scot!”
Basically, it gives the speaker the ability to shift the definition of a word around without seeming to do so. Paul can now claim that any person, Jew or not, is (or is not) a “true Jew”.]
So why be a Jew? Well, Jews have the law [implication is that the law is a blessing]. But does that mean that Jews who don’t do the law and are thereby cursed nullify god’s faithfulness?
[Of course not – they are not “true Jews” as discussed earlier. God violates nothing in being unfaithful to them. A nice little rhetorical device if you can get away with it.]
The fact that our badness brings out God’s goodness is not sufficient excuse for being bad. Some people say that this is my position, but it isn’t.
So are we any better? [“We” being the Christians in Rome.] No – everyone has sinned. The law applies only to those under it, so that everyone will be accountable.
[EH!? If the law applies only to those under it, how does this make everyone accountable? I suppose is point is that there are two groups: Jews and gentiles. The Jews have the law and fail to keep it. The gentiles are homosexuals and idol worshippers and have bad consciences. This covers everyone. The problem here is that a lot of gentiles have consciences that don’t bother them at all. The normal evangelistic thing is to say to the unsaved that the bible states that everyone is guilty. But Paul here makes it quite clear that “there is none righteous” only applies to people under the law – the Jews. “Why should I become a Christian? I live a good life.” by this reading of this passage actually becomes a reasonable excuse.]
So now I’m announcing a completely new deal – nothing to do with the law (although you will find it in the law & prophets if you look hard enough) – wherein righteousness comes through faith in Jesus Christ. Every one has sinned, but Jesus’ death was an atoning sacrifice. This deal also covers people who are already dead.
[Not a great deal of effort goes into establishing this from the Scriptures. Basically, Paul originated this gospel to the gentiles and is not shy about saying so. We really have only his authority to go on. The gospels were written after this stuff.]
So no point anybody boasting. This new deal applies to everyone, Jew and gentile, and is appropriated by faith alone. This does not nullify the law, but upholds it. [how?]
Abraham was justified by faith – not works – before he was circumcised. David says that being credited with righteousness is a blessing. This means that it isn’t earned, because something that is earned is not a “blessing”, it’s just what’s due. So Abraham’s being credited with righteousness was not something that he earnt. Since Abraham was justified though faith before being circumcised, he is the father of all who are justified, circumcised or not.
[Now any gentile here will say, “so what?”. Why should I care about being a child of Abraham if I am justified through faith in Jesus alone? Paul demonstrates his jewishness – as though being a descendant of Abraham (in whatever sense) is the most important thing in the world. Was Melchizidek a child of Abraham? Was Noah, who believed in God? Why does imputed righteousness make us a child of Abraham in particular? Perhaps Paul’s agenda is to get the Jewish Christians to accept gentiles. He does this by claiming that since Jews are the children of Abraham (in the sense of being descended from him), and also that gentile Christians are children of Abraham (in the sense of having imputed righteousness), we are therefore all one big happy family. Of course, he does not make obvious what I have put in parenthesis: the fact that he is using the phrase “child of Abraham” in two very different ways and confounding their meanings. Paul shifts the definition of the phrase away from its natural and obvious meaning. Child means child – doesn’t it? Is he revealing a truth from God, or engaging in shady rhetorical tactics? What place have political moves like this got in the inspired word of God? Is it relevant to me?]
When the Scriptures say that Abraham’s faith was credited to him for righteousness, that applies to us as well who believe on Jesus. [In other
words: trust me, it just does.]
This is a really great thing [this covers verses 1-11].
Death came to men because of Adam’s sin.
[Does this mean that nothing would have died if Adam had not sinned? What are the carnivores supposed to have eaten? What happens after the world fills up with people? Paul couldn’t imagine this happening, but we easily can. Or perhaps the Catholics are right, and sex is a result of the fall. God’s original intent was that Adam and Eve be immortal caretakers of the world. Having a bunch of descendants to do it is Plan B. Next question: what if Adam had been struck by lightning or squished in two by a falling tree? Would he have lived? In what sense was there no death?]
There was sin before the law, but it wasn’t taken into account. Even so, death applied to everyone even though they did not specifically break a command.
[What? If death – the consequence of sin – reigned, in what sense was sin not taken into account? It’s like: “Sin wasn’t taken into account; however, people died anyway. I don’t really know why. Next point…”. Is this the best God can do in his divinely inspired word?]
Through Adam, one man’s sin caused many deaths; but through Jesus, one man’s death bought the grace of God to many.
[Of course, it’s not a perfect reflection. The consequences of Adam’s sin apply to everyone automatically. The consequences of Jesus’ death do not. Next obvious question is: why do Christians die? I have a theory, which I will expound later in this letter.]
The law was added to make things worse [!] . Where sin increased, grace increased all the more.
[Doesn’t this contradict 3:7? Or is it OK for God but not for you and me?]
So should we sin all the more, so that grace may abound? No no no. We died to sin. This is a new concept – let me explain: We were buried with Christ in baptism so that we might have a new life like he did. We are united with him in his death, so we will be united with him in his resurrection. Our old self was crucified.
[Oops – there goes the idea of bodily resurrection! We are united with him in death in that our old self died. Our resurrection is no more than that we get a new self at the time of our baptism. There is no basis here for imagining that we will rise from the dead – perhaps we have already had as much resurrection as we are going to get.]
We are no longer slaves to sin because we have died to it. So do not let sin reign in your body.
[Eh? If we have died to sin, then how can it possibly reign in our bodies? Clearly – our bodies did not die to sin. So new self good; body bad. CS Lewis once said that Christianity is the only religion that thoroughly approves of the body. I think, from this reading, he was mistaken. We like to teach that when Paul says “flesh”, he means “our fleshly (unspiritual) nature”. I’m not so sure. I think he intended to mean our body and its as simple as that.]
The law no longer applies to you. You died to sin, and laws do not apply to the dead. Sinful passions are aroused by the law. Without the law, sin is dead. There is no sin without law to break.
[Doesn’t make a great deal of sense. In Ch1, Paul goes to lengths to point out that the gentiles sin. Now they don’t have the law, so how is that possible? On the other hand, this is consistent with 5:13, or is it? How does the rule of conscience fit into this?]
Did that which is good [the law] become death to me? No! Sin is sin anyway, but without the law you don’t know it.
[So sin is death, even if you don’t know it. The law just informs you of the consequences you would be getting anyway. But once again, what if you are doing stuff which the law regards as sin but your conscience does not bother you? 2:13 might be construed to mean that they area without guilt. Paul’s answer in 2:15 seems to be that your conscience must be bothering you. But this just ain’t so. You and I both know there are people out there who genuinely think they are perfectly ok. Only a Jew or a Catholic could imagine that a pervasive feeling of guilt is universal to the human race.]
[Verses 14-25 are terribly confused, and they are one of the key passages in the NT. Here is my interpretation of what Paul is trying to say.]
I want to do the right thing but don’t. I keep on doing wrong things. Since my intent is to do right, the bad things I do are therefore unintentional and so are not my fault. It’s not me doing the wrong thing, but rather the sin in me, specifically, in my body. I am good; but my body is bad.
[Paul states that he struggles with bodily temptations and loses. Nothing else makes a great deal of sense. The intensity of the passage strongly suggests to me that those bodily temptations were sexual in nature. We can guess what temptations they actually were from 1:25-27 (read it). Yes, that’s right children. St Paul was a homosexual. He struggled with it, and despised himself for it. His driven energy is a classic symptom, so I have heard. Since he says that he actually does do wrong things without wanting to, we can suppose that he wasn’t even latent. By splitting himself into his “new self” and opposing it to his body, he can displace his guilt about his actions onto “this body of death” that does these terrible, shameful things. He himself is innocent. Remember kids: this is the dude who wrote most of the textbook for your religion and mine.]
Only God can rescue me – through Jesus Christ.
[The law condemned him for his deeds without offering a way out. You know, I was wondering how a sceptic might account for Paul’s conversion without the miraculous Emmaus experience. This explains it – Christianity let him off the hook of his guilt. By the way: I am not here repeating something I have heard elsewhere. I am sure that someone before me has drawn these conclusions, but I did not get them off someone else: I arrived at them myself after reading Romans last night and in the process of going through it now to write this letter. I do not claim that these things are necessarily correct, merely that they do explain the facts terribly well.]
So there is no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus. He has set me free from the consequences [death] of breaking the law. The law is fulfilled in those who do not live by the sinful nature, but by the Spirit. Sinful nature: bad; Spirit: good. You are controlled by the Spirit. Anyone without the Spirit does not belong to Christ. If the spirit who raised Christ from the dead is in you, he will give life to your mortal bodies.
[So why do Christians die? Jesus promised that anyone who yet lives and believes in him shall never die. I reckon that one of the reasons that Peter was so bold at Pentecost was that he thought, on excellent authority, that he was literally unkillable. And yet we have been dying for nearly two millennia. A Satanist would say that Christ’s mission to earth failed. He promised a resurrection – and there was one! All around Jerusalem tombs opened, just like he said. And that’s it sunshine: that’s all you get. There will be no general resurrection at the end of time: God has shot his bolt. Jesus went to Hades for three days and purchased three days worth of redemption, enough for the recent dead in Jerusalem. His sinlessness was enough to resurrect himself, but not anyone else. From now on life just goes on.]
So we have an obligation to live by the Spirit. Things might be bad now, but the future glory makes it worth it. We will be adopted as sons, and our bodies will be redeemed. Until then, the Spirit helps us.
[Getting back to the “St Paul was a homosexual” theory: we can be slightly more charitable than we have been. Paul had a genuine problem with homosexual urges, or perhaps with some other bodily sin (gluttony or whatever). He was saved, and Jesus genuinely helped him with it. He looks forward to the time when he will be free from sin, in a new incorruptible body.]
God looks out for us who he has predestined. This is good. No one condemns us – not Jesus, not God. No one can separate us from the love of God.
I really worry about Israel. Only the children of promise count as “true Jews”. Is god unjust? No, he is under no obligation to give his promises. On top of this, God hardens some people’s hearts. Is this bad? You might say that God ought not condemn those he has hardened. But you have no business talking back to God – he is much bigger than you are. He is patient with some bad people to set them up for destruction so that those to whom he has shown mercy really appreciate it.
[Does this get up your nose as much as it does mine? If I use a stick to hit someone with, I cannot justify my action by saying that it was the stick that hit them, not me. If God hardens a person’s heart so that they cannot believe, then surely it is God who is guilty of the unbelief. I suppose God has a perfect right to predestine some of his creation for eternal torment, after all – they would never have existed anyway if not for him. It just doesn’t jell, is all. Can’t God do any better than “don’t talk back – remember what happened to the last guy who crossed me”? I get the feeling that Paul was reading Job before this and was feeling especially Jewish. In any case, this passage contradicts 2:4, in which Paul states that God’s patience is intended to lead to repentance.]
I really worry about Israel. They are zealous, but don’t know where it is really at. Having the word live in you is better than rules. All you have to do is confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord, and believe with your heart that God raised him from the dead. With this, there is no distinction between Jew and Gentile. Someone really has to preach to them. God will make them envious of the Gentiles who have Jesus.
God has not rejected the Jews. Not all of them are hardened. God has grafted you gentiles in, but the Jews are natural branches and were there first.
[Get with it Paul. Is there a distinction between Jew and Gentile in Christ or isn’t there?]
God kicked them because they were disobedient, he will kick you too if you become so. God has deliberately hardened them for your benefit, but really loves them especially.
[Too bad for the individual Jewish person who is going to hell because they just happened to live during a time in history when God was working on the Gentiles.]
I might skip the next few chapters, which I don’t have things to say about. However, having had a go at the inerrancy of Scripture in my previous letter, I might as well tilt at the idea that it is inspired in its entirety. Ro 16:23: “Gaius, whose hospitality I and the whole church here enjoy, sends you his greetings. Erastus, who is the city’s director of public works, and our brother Quartus send you their greetings.”
Now, did God inspire this verse? Did God, in his eternal omnipotence and wondrous power, reach down from heaven especially to remind St Paul to pass on a cheerio to Rome from these three worthies? The question is less flippant than it appears.
Do we have to assume that the entire letter of Paul to the Romans was inspired by God? Consider the situation: Paul sits down and writes (or dictates) a letter intended to be read publicly. It gets copied and circulated. 300 years later, it gets included in a collection of writings from various church fathers and winds up in the New Testament sitting on a stool next to my keyboard. Was it all in its entirety direct from the throne of God? Or is it a little like a sermon preached by any pastor even today: a bit from God, a bit from himself. How can we be certain that this particular letter was inspired from its beginning right to its very end? I suppose we could ask the dudes who compiled the NT in 300 AD, but they, regrettably, are dead. Certainly not everything that Paul wrote wound up in the bible, and I’ll bet that quite a bit of it was really very good. But if you carry this line of thought too far, you might wind up thinking that the particular selection of writings we have as our New Testament is a historical accident.
Now I am perfectly aware that this opens up a can of worms. If someone decides that only bits of it are inspired, then they can just choose the bits they like. But the alternative is insisting that God himself inspired the cheerio from Quartus, and the bit (in Timothy?) where Paul asks someone to bring his cloak next time they visit him in prison. Not to mention “Sin is not taken into account where there is no law. Nevertheless, death reigned…”.