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February 2009

Paul and God's Wrath

Faced with "the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all the impiety and unrighteousness of humankind" in Romans 1:18, Cobb and Lull know that many contemporary Christians are uncomfortable thinking of God as motivated by anything other than love.  Their solution?

Paul was engaged in shifting the reader's understanding of God in precisely that direction that we now, too often, take for granted--namely, away from an angry and wrathful God to a God whose loving righteousness bears all things, including our suffering and all our sins, and whos power aims toward breaking the bonds of sin.

But, as I read the entire section, I am not clear on something.  Do they think Paul is simply using a rhetorical device and that he does not himself believe that God was ever wrathful?  Or do they think that Paul thought God was once wrathful and is no longer (they do repeatedly talk about this passage as a narrative of salvation)?

Breyer's Natural Vanilla Bean

I had it twice yesterday on my birthday!  I had decided to buy some yesterday, despite how much it might cost, and was excited that it was on sale.  I don't keep ice cream in the house much, and rarely Breyer's because it is so expensive.

It was like that growing up.  Mom never bought it because it was too expensive.  But my grandparents, the Nixons, they always had it.  I can imagine the conversation as Pappoo would have suggested getting something less expensive and Mammoo would have given him a look and said she had been poor, worked hard in life, and now she was going to enjoy expensive ice cream. 

So, whenever I was at their house, I would eat as much as I could.

Romans 1:18-32

The appeal to the authority of this text in order to oppose full acceptance of homosexuals today reflects an important shift away from Paul. He was not developing a pattern of moral teaching. Paul treated male same-sex sexual acts as an illustration of the social distortions that idolatry introduced. . . . We should learn from him how to envision the Christian life in nonlegalistic ways. To follow Paul on these basic doctrines will lead us away from the current impasse on homosexuality. Quoting as finally authoritative his statements derived from the common opinions of his day will not. He rigorously avoided building a legalistic system on these opinions. To build such a system today is a far greater violation of Paul's authority than to disagree with him about some of his time-and culture-bound judgments.

Well, in a nutshell that is Cobb and Lull's position.

Many of the commentaries I read last year for my Romans sermon series avoided or quickly moved over the controversial nature of this passage. Cobb and Lull take it head on. Not because they think sexual ethics is a major point of the passage – most scholars are in agreement that it is not. But because it is so controversial in the church today and as commentators they feel obligated to address the controversy. Further, the opposition to sacramental equality for homosexuals they perceive as falling into the very sins which Paul is preaching against. It is these opponents who are not taking Paul authoritatively.

Those who choose to accept Paul's teaching that same-sex sexual acts are always "unnatural" do so because they hold to this opinion themselves, not because Paul held it.

Their treatment of this passage is lengthy. They cover linguistic and textual issues and enter into more general, theological and ethical discussions.

Paul is writing about excessive desire. I learned from Foucault's A History of Sexuality how moralists of the period generally approached the issue of desire. Any excessive desire was "unnatural" because it arose from a loss of rational self-control. This ethic applied across the board of the desires, with much emphasis on food. It is significant that we do not currently problematize eating nearly to the level we problematize sex. Isn't gluttony a mortal sin?

As I preached last year, Paul had a negative view of all sexual desire, including that which leads to heterosexual sex. He used same-sex sexual desire as an illustration of sexual desire gone to excess. Is it because he had a negative view of same-sex sexual relations (distinct from his overall negative views on sexual desire)? Or was he simply using rhetorical boilerplate to make his point?

On this final question, Cobb and Lull come down on the side that Paul did have a negative view of same-sex sexual relations, as part of his cultural conditioning, but that he used it merely as an illustration. Other commentators believe it is a mere rhetorical device and not an expression of his own views.

One point they do not discuss, which I would like t have seen them address, is recent scholarship by Thomas Hanks that suggests much of the audience of the letter to the Romans was slaves who were likely sexually abused by their masters. He raises the interesting question, could the issue here have been pastoral, Paul addressing the sexual abuse of members of this congregation?

I'm currently reading Suetonius' Lives of the Twelve Caesars. The sexual perversions he writes about and presents as common knowledge in the Empire give context to this passage and explain why Jews and Christians would have reacted so viscerally to Gentile perversions. I would also condemn the sexual antics of Tiberius, Caligula, etc.

Cobb and Lull miss tying this passage to Paul's critique of empire, despite that being a major theme in their commentary.

Right on time for my birthday

When I turned 30 I threw my back out, for the first time, a month later, while carrying a couch in the youth room with two 18 year olds who looked at me as I lay on the floor in intense pain.

Earlier this week my first white chest hair made an appearance.

All Hail West Texas

Charlie Bates gave me this album when I was living in Dallas, and I quickly fell in love with it.  It was one of those I kept at work and played all the time.  I especially enjoy the opening song about "the best ever death metal band out of Denton."  I wish I could write a line that funny.

What is sin?

I'm enjoying the Transforming Theology project, because it is connecting me to a number of interesting other bloggers.

Here's an exciting question, posed by Zach Roberts:

Is sin an outside intruder into our relational existence, or is it an irreducible element within the matrix of the cosmos? In other words, is it cancer, or is it electron?

The Theme of Romans

Cobb & Lull discuss the various ways to translate and interpret Romans 1:16-17.  And there are many.   Which is interesting, because pretty much everyone agrees that it is the thesis statement of the letter. 

Romans may be the most influentional Christian theological writing, and yet there is no solid consensus on the translation, much less the interpretation, of its thesis statement.  Ponder that for a moment.

Of course the interpretation of this verse is one of the causes of the Protestant Reformation and all that followed from it (good and bad).  It may be one of the most influential sentences in human history.  Many contemporary writers think Luther actually got it wrong.

I would suggest Romans in Full Circle by Mark Reasoner which surveys the history of Romans interpretation.  One thesis of Reasoner's book is that the new perspective has much in common with Origen (thus the "full circle"). 

Cobb and Lull take Romans 1:17 to mean, "In the gospel, the righteousness of God was revealed through Jesus' faithfulness so as to evoke faithfulness in others."

Part I of the commentary closes with some concluding reflections which they have drawn from Romans 1:1-17.  Here are a few that stood out and should spark some conversation:

"Through participation in the faithfulness of Jesus, others can share Jesus' status as a child of God." 

St. Athanasius said "God became man in order that man might become God."  This deification model is Christian orthodoxy, though it doesn't sound like it to most people.  Once I said this line of Athanasius' without attribution at a youth ministers retreat planning meeting and was met with the accusation of new age-ism.  Aghast, I proclaimed that I had just quoted St. Athanasius and that you could find this phrase uttered by St. Augustine and others and that it was and is orthodox Christian teaching.

I also come at this phrase with the influence of John Howard Yoder and his politics of Jesus and particularly the chapter "The Disiple of Christ and the Way of Jesus."

"Paul certainly saw God as working in and through Jesus in a unique way, but he knew nothing of a 'divine nature' in Jesus that was not also present in all other human beings."

I posted at length about Christology the other day and wrote my preferred way of talking about it.  But I thought this sentence was provocative enough to merit inclusion here.  You may also find it interesting that this sentence follows immediately upon the one I discussed above. 

I do think they have gotten closer to early Christian understandings of Jesus and the spiritual life.  I, for one, am not completely against later theology and formulations.  I am against thinking that any of these formulations are anything more than metaphors grasping at mystery.

One outcome of this understanding of Jesus and his work is a repudiation of Luther's understanding.  However, they try to build some bridges with Luther as the chapter concludes:

"When one participates in Jesus' faithfulness, God treats one in terms of that faithfulness, not in terms of the limitations and failures of one's participation."

They state that either emphasis ends up leading to the other emphasis.

The Harrowing of Hell

That's the subject of my sermon this week, with I Peter 3:18-22 as my text. 

This is the first time I've preached on this doctrine.  It is also the first time in my pastorate here that I've preached from one of the General Epistles (it really does take years to even scratch the surface of scripture). 

I've had to do a lot of on-line research today and have really enjoyed what I have found, and am now sitting down to write.

Utah v. Oklahoma

If there is any state in the Union that I thought could be more conservative than Oklahoma, it would be Utah.  Yet . . .

Last year when Rep. Sally Kern said that gays were the biggest threat to America, the Republican caucus gave her a standing ovation.

This year when Sen. Buttars fo Utah says virtually the same thing, he is removed from his committee chairmanship and the caucus meets to determine further action.  Read about it here.

In other gay news, it appears that Fred Phelps and his family will be in OKC on Monday to protest at the State Capitol because the legislature allowed me to pray.