I have a tendency to read the New Testament, and especially Paul, against the later Christian tradition — for instance, in my post yesterday distinguishing between the Protestant Paul and the “real” Paul. My teaching this semester, though, has me thinking more seriously about historical continuities than about betrayals, or at least about the necessary betrayals that are tied up in any long-standing tradition. And due to the vagaries of my syllabus, I’m thinking primarily in terms of Paul’s legacy for Augustine and Dante.
I’ve got Romans on my mind, specifically 1:17 — “For in it the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith; as it is written, ‘The one who is righteous will live by faith'” (NRSV translation; Greek text: δικαιοσύνη γὰρ θεοῦ ἐν αὐτῷ ἀποκαλύπτεται ἐκ πίστεως εἰς πίστιν, καθὼς γέγραπται, Ὁ δὲ δίκαιος ἐκ πίστεως ζήσεται). This is the locus classicus of the Protestant emphasis on justification by faith (as opposed to works), an emphasis that has obscured the basic political meaning of the passage, including at the level of translation. Here I’m going to be following the inspiration of Ted Jennings’ reading as found in Outlaw Justice, but I am working through this verse myself.
Today we discussed Romans in class, and I described the traditional reading somewhat uncharitably: there’s something wrong with us such that it’s impossible for us to do the right thing, but if we believe in a certain story, then it’s alright. I know I should be more respectful, but no one seemed very disturbed by it. Perhaps I can get away with it because it’s obvious that I know a lot about the Bible and it means something to me (albeit in some kind of weird way). And in fact, that’s what motivates my dismissal of the traditional reading — it renders Romans (and the Bible more broadly) meaningless.
The traditional narrative of salvation, especially in its Protestant inflection, is one that never made much sense to me. I struggled mightily with it, growing up in a particularly evangelical/fundamentalist corner of the Church of the Nazarene. I could never figure out why I as a Gentile ever needed to be released from the burden of the Jewish Law, why “works righteousness” was such an appalling thing, why getting baptized or going to the altar to ask forgiveness wasn’t a “work,” etc., etc. Ultimately I tried to square the circle by joining the Catholic Church, which at least seemed to offer me some objectivity.
That objectivity no longer appeals to me in the same way, but I still can’t get my mind around the Protestant problematic of faith and works and justification. On a practical level, raising children within the Protestant problematic seems like a recipe for neurosis at best (me and all my closest friends) and moral nihilism at worst (all the evangelical Trump supporters, the most prominent of which are precisely the sons of the first wave of leaders).
The reading of Romans I find in Ted Jennings, Neil Elliott, and others presents me with problems that make sense. What do we do when law seems impotent to produce the justice it aims for? How can we maintain integrity while living in a corrupt system that coerces us into complicity with injustice? What would it mean if we really didn’t have to be afraid of death anymore? I find it hard to believe in the resurrection of the dead, but it at least means something in a way that finagling your immortal soul into heaven simply does not in my view.
I’m not sure what the answer is, but I am sure that the wrath of God is revealed against the American Empire, as sure as Paul was that the wrath of God was revealed against the Rome of Caligula and Nero. We are living in Romans 1 every time we turn on the TV news. It doesn’t take divine revelation to know that things can’t go on like this forever. But we go along with it, for the most part, because we’re afraid — more and more afraid as we become more and more precarious. All our politics, our collective life has to offer us is fear.
The resurrection may be a fantasy, but it’s a fantasy that does something, that opens up a space for transformation and hope. A man was subjected to torture and a shameful, painful death, but through some divine power he was able to overcome literally the worst the world could dish out to him — and so we don’t need to be afraid anymore. He is starting a team that we can join so that we don’t have to be afraid. And when we look at the style of thought that something like the resurrection might make possible, then we can look for other things that might fulfill a similar role. Could we arrange a society where we didn’t need to coerce each other with the threat of death, exclusion, starvation, and shame? What would have to happen to make that possible?
Jennings’ Transforming Atonement is an excellent work. Unlike other liberation theologians that generally focus on ethics or politics, Jennings’ political theology of the cross is grounded in Biblical exegesis. In Part I he focuses upon the historical context of Jesus’ ministry and death along with Jesus’ solidarity with the oppressed and the sinners of society.
I want to focus this review on the last chapter of Part 1 and last chapters of Part 2. Many Christians view Jesus’ death as a peace offering to appease a wrathful God that hates us. Jennings argues quite persuasively that it is humanity that needs to be reconciled to God, according to Paul. Humanity is angry and “we are the ones who have a “beef” with God” (128). However, God takes the initiative to reconcile us. God has come in Christ to remove our alienation from God.
In chapter nine, Jennings asks “[w]hat are the implications of the theology of the cross for our understanding of God?” (199). Jennings worries that older formulations tried to protect the Godhead from the death suffered by the Son by insisting that only Jesus’ human nature was impacted by crucifixion. However, this splitting apart of Jesus’ two natures potentially threatens the unity of the Godhead. [That’s why it’s always been no surprise to me that Lutheran theologians have been able to proclaim that God is dead since they tend to err in the other direction away from these Nestorian Christological formulations]. This would contradict the Biblical witness that God was “present in the fate of the crucified Messiah” (203). This splitting apart of the Godhead ultimately encouraged the idea that the Father was “an agent rather than as sufferer” (203) in the death of the Messiah. Jennings then briefly reviews other theologians who have likewise critiqued the idea of an impassible God such as: Whitehead, Bonhoeffer, Kitamori, Moltmann, and Altizer.
Jennings then turns to discuss Heidegger’s famous remark that “only a God can save us” and Derrida’s critique of the sovereign God of onto-theology. Jennings writes, “only with the idea of a nonsovereign God, a vulnerable God, indeed a God who can die, can humanity be rid of the dreams of invincible power that has consigned our history to violence and suffering” (213). Jennings recognizes that his position is very close to Altizer’s gospel of Christian atheism, which is the idea “that God is emptied into history as the coming sociality of mutual care, of justice, generosity, and joy” (214). This coming community is the only thing that can save us.
In the closing chapter Jennings discusses different atonement theories. He argues that there is no orthodox reading of the tradition. He rejects satisfaction metaphors because satisfaction can function as a substitute for justice, not to mention the whole notion is unjust even if Christ’s death was voluntary. Next, he takes aim at forensic metaphors which he believes betray the Pauline distinction between law and justice. Substitution will not do because it underemphasizes the important ethical implications of the cross. Instead Jennings favors Soelle’s idea that Christ represents us temporarily but is not a substitute for humanity. Although he appreciates liberation theologians’ re-interpretation of the patristic tradition, Jennings is doubtful that these new readings share much in common with older ransom models. Finally, the Abelardian theory is inappropriately individualistic and might encourage abuse since God wills Jesus’ death to demonstrate God’s love.
Jennings believes that all three theories have holes and that any sort of attempted synthesis is doomed to fail. What is ultimately sacrificed is “the divine claim and call for justice” (223). Moreover, what mattes is not a theory but “a confrontation with all systems of arrogance and violence, of domination, and death, of privilege and prestige, that holds humanity hostage” (229).
This work is a bold attempt to argue for an updated political theology of the cross. Although I did not focus on the more exegetical chapters, his mastery of Pauline literature is simple amazing. He is able to navigate deftly through the epistles and to demystify so much of the jargon to explain the heart of the Pauline message. Theologically I am drawn to this work as it weaves together quite convincingly two of my favorite theological traditions: radical death of God theology and liberation theology.
This is a postscript to a post I wrote a while back on “Why I Used to be Attracted to Radical Orthodoxy,” in which I stated my initial attraction to RO because it “promis[ed] to have something theological to say about economics, sex, cities, philosophy, aesthetics and music,” and most nearly everything. Before I ever encountered RO, I was captivated by chapter 8 of John Howard Yoder’s The Politics of Jesus (“Christ and Power”) because it offered a means for reflecting on the structural aspects of sin and the structural elements of redemption. As I was recently reading Douglas Harink’s Paul Among the Postliberals it occurred to me that Pauline apocalyptic theology might have been a more obvious place to begin exploring the cosmic (all encompassing) framework of the gospel, rather than RO’s explorations into the various “sites” in which secular modernity has invested heavily (because they often uphold Christendom as the alternative). A couple of choice quotations from Harink make the case for apocalyptic as a mode for theological engagement with different “sites” with the gospel: Continue reading “The Far-Reaching Scope of Pauline Apocalyptic”