Book Review: Randolph and O’Brien. Paul Behaving Badly

Richards, E. Randolph and Brandon J. O’Brien. Paul Behaving Badly: Was the Apostle a Racist, Chauvinist Jerk? Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 2016. 224 pgs., Pb.; $16.00 Link to IVP

This book follows Mark Strauss’s Jesus Behaving Badly (IVP 2016, I review this book here) and David Lamb’s God Behaving Badly (IVP 2011). In many ways this new book is similar to an earlier volume written by Richards and O’Brien, Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes (IVP 2012). The goal of this book is to offer some explanation for some of Paul’s writings which strike the modern (and politically correct) reader as not just difficult, but impossible to apply. In the conclusion to the book, they state “Paul was a product of his time—like everyone else” (194).

paul-behaving-badlyIn the introduction to the book, the writers set up the “problem of Paul” by describing their own misgivings about Paul. On the one hand, Paul does say some rather disturbing things. Most Christians struggle with Paul’s command for women to remain silent in church because it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in church (1 Cor 14:3-35). His commands on head-coverings (1 Cor 11:2-16) are difficult to apply in a modern context. Paul can certainly be abrasive and downright rude, calling be infants or foolish (Gal 3:1). There are many Christians who prefer the kind, loving Jesus to a cranky, autocratic Paul. In the conclusion to the book the authors express their hope that this book does not “hate on Paul” (193),

But another serious problem is that Paul is intimidating! Reading Paul can be a difficult slog in terms of both content and theology. Following the argument of Romans can be challenging, and unpacking Paul’s logic in a way which resonates with a modern reader is not always possible. For many Christians it is far easier to understand a parable of Jesus and immediately apply the parable to a situation in their life than to wade through the thick theological argument of Romans or Galatians.

Richards and O’Brien, begin with the way Paul communicates with his readers. Sometimes he seems to be “kind of a jerk.” This is certainly true when Paul’s letters are compared to the popular image most people of Jesus. Another aspect of Paul’s letters which is hard for some to handle is arrogance. Rather than following Jesus, Paul regularly tells his readers to follow him. In 1 Corinthians 11:1, for example, Paul demands his readers follow his example as he follows Christ. Despite demanding peace in his churches, Paul occasionally bullies his opponents (24), calling them names and mocking their views. Richards and O’Brien point out that Paul makes a great deal out of his calling to be the Apostle to the Gentiles and he seems to put his own agenda ahead of the leading of the Holy Spirit (citing Acts 21:4). Richards and O’Brien conclude “there is no way around it. Paul thought he was special” (36). At least some of Paul’s bluster can put explained as Greco-Roman rhetoric, and put into the context of other Roman writers, Paul is not that much different (perhaps he is less of a bully that some!)

Chapters 2-6 deal with specific issues in the Pauline letters which are difficult to apply in a modern context (Paul was a killjoy, racist, pro-slavery, a Chauvinist, and homophobic). In each case Richards and O’Brien set up the issue by citing several passages in Paul which imply he was in fact a racist, etc. After examining these passages within the cultural context of the first century, Roman world, they conclude Paul is not guilty as charged. At least not by the standards of the first century Roman world. This is a key observation for each of the issues Richards and O’Brien cover in chapters 2-6. If Paul is understood as a Second Temple period Jew living in the Greco-Roman world of the first century, then his “politically incorrect” sayings are perfectly understandable.

For example, Paul did not “support slavery” in the same sense than nineteenth century Southern Americans did. Certainly Paul did not demand Christians release their slaves, and he did tell slaves they ought to obey their masters. But in the context of the Roman world, slavery was not always an abusive relationship nor would every slave desire to be free! Although Richards and O’Brien do not mention this, it is worth noting that Jesus never demanded his followers free their slaves. Many of Jesus’ parables include slaves, although it is hidden behind the softer translation “servants.” So Paul could be charged as “pro-slavery” if his words are taken out of context, but within the correct cultural context, he is neither for nor against slavery.

With respect to chauvinism and homophobia, from a modern perspective Paul may be “guilty as charged.” But again, Richards and O’Brien work to set some of Paul’s difficult anti-women and anti-homosexual statements into their proper historical context. With respect to women, the writers conclude that Paul does come across badly, but Paul’s Jewish culture would have not been pleased with the level of freedom and responsibility Paul suggested women have in the Body of Christ (122). With respect to homosexuality, it is absolutely true that Paul considers homosexuality a sin, but his view stands on the foundation of the Jewish Law. Paul’s view was counter to the morals of the Greco-Roman world, but as Richards and O’Brien conclude, homosexual relationships acceptable in the Roman world did not include gay relationships between equals (gay marriage).

The two final issues in the book are more difficult. First, was Paul a Hypocrite? The issue here is Paul’s ministry strategy of being “all things to all men” (1 Cor 9:20-21). Did Paul tell to live one way, while living a different way himself? In some letters, Paul refuses to take money from his churches, but in others he thanks the churches for their gifts. The issue of eating meat sacrificed to idols seems odd to us today, but it is was an important issue in the first century since Gentiles had no problem with the practice, Jewish Christians would have thought it was a sin. Richards and O’Brien offer an interesting analogy, should Christians practice yoga? Most Christians would answer like Paul, it depends. Since the origins of yoga are part of a non-Christian religious practice, could a believer do yoga as recreation without all of the pagan baggage? What if you listen to Chris Tomlin while doing yoga? For Paul, the wise answer for some practices depends on the situation (164).

Second, did Paul twist Scripture? There are a few places in Paul’s letters where he seems to read the Old Testament in ways which the original text did not intend. The allegory of Sarah and Hagar in Galatians 4 is an example of this, since Paul uses the two women (and their children) as an analogy for a change in God’s plan from Promise to Law to Grace. I have occasionally joked that if my exegesis students turned in papers using the same methods Paul did in Galatians 4, I would probably fail them! But as Richards and O’Brien point out, Paul is reading the Old Testament as a Jewish Christian. He was a trained Pharisee who was thoroughly trained in rabbinical techniques including midrash and pesher. As with virtually every section of this book, reading Paul in the context of the Second Temple period helps us to understand what Paul is saying. They conclude Paul did not twist Scripture, “but he did squeeze every last drop out of it” (190).

As a conclusion to the book, Richards and O’Brien offer a short reflection on whether we ought to be “following Paul” or “following Jesus.” Like most of the questions in this book, the question is set up in order to generate the discussion which follows. Of course we follow Jesus, but we imitate Paul has he followed Jesus. It is true Paul may have been a “bull in a china shop” at times, but he was called by God to suffer for the sake of Jesus.

Conclusion. As with any book of this kind, chapter titles are set up in order to catch the reader’s attention and make the answer to the question applicable to a modern reader. So, “Was Paul a homophobe?” suggests to the reader perhaps he was, although the answer is always comes down to careful definition of terms. The cover of the book and the promotional material which will accompany the book are intentionally shocking. This book would make an excellent small group Bible study since the chapters are set up to generate discussion Paul’s views on controversial issues and how those issues ought to be addressed in the church today.

 

Is God Faithful to His Promise? – Romans 9-11

Romans 9-11 deal with the “problem” of the Jewish people in the present age. If God has begun a new program to deal with all peoples equally without giving a special advantage to Israel, one might ask if Israel is completely cut off from God’s blessing.  What about the promises that God made to Abraham and David?  Would he fulfill those promises at some point in the future?  Or has God completely cut off Israel’s special place in his plan due to their unfaithfulness.

AbrahamPaul’s intention in Romans 9-11 is not to give a complete exposition of predestination and election, he restricts his comments to God’s choice of Israel as a favored nation, and within Israel those who believe, the true Israel (Dunn, Romans, 546). A few general comments about God’s choice of Israel as his people are possible.

The election of Israel was not based upon works.  Paul makes this point by using the election of Jacob as an illustration in verse 12.  Before the children were born and could do deeds of merit or sinful deeds, the choice was made.  Even the choice of Isaac is made before he is born.  Paul cites Genesis 18:10-14 to show Isaac was the son of promise, not Ishmael. It was not Sarah’s faith that was the basis of the choice since she laughed at the idea of having a child.  One cannot even say it was through Abraham’s faith his son was chosen since the promise of a child was made in the initial promise in Genesis 12, before Abraham had believed.

In the first paragraph of Romans 9 Paul lists the advantages of Israel’s election, including their adoption as sons, the divine glory, the covenants, the receiving of the law, the temple worship, the promises, and patriarchs.  Even the Messiah is a blessing given to Israel.  Yet the fact they have all of these things and preform the Works of the Law and Temple worship does not guarantee them salvation.

If the election of Israel is not based on works, on what is it based?  The key phrase in this section is in verse 11: God’s electing purpose. The “purpose” of God is rooted in the Old Testament idea of an eternal God whose will transcends human will. Israel is God’s people because of God’s free decision. This decision not based upon any conditions. For Paul, there is not a need to explain the reasons for God’s choice, they are summed up by the phrase “electing purpose of God.”

Paul argues that because Israel has been elected by God to be his people, the nation still has advantages even in unbelief.  In in 9:4-5 these advantages are outlined in very brief straightforward statements. These advantages are not in the past, but in language suggesting the benefits are Israel’s at the present time.  Paul vividly describes his sadness of Israel’s rejection of Christ. But it also serves to show that the election of Israel has some meaning in the present time.

Paul is therefore arguing God is faithful to his promises despite the current state of Israel’s unbelief. Will God be faithful to the promise to Abraham and restore Israel in the future? Does their present state of unbelief mean they will not receive a promised restoration in the future?

Awaiting our Adoption – Romans 8:23-27

Even the believers look forward to their redemption, knowing that they have not been fully glorified at this point in their lives. Paul refers to himself and his Christian readers as the “firstfruits of the Spirit” (v. 22-23). This could refer to the first people who have received the Holy Spirit since the New Age has begun. For those of us living “between the ages” we are the early part of the harvest which will be fully seen only when the kingdom finally arrives.

Image result for stuart littleIt is clear from the book of Romans that Christ’s death on the cross has full we purchased salvation, and that those who are in Christ are justified, and experience peace with God at the present time. However we have yet to be glorified. So by describing the Christians as “first fruit” he calls to mind the fact that the first fruit of the harvest is only a foreshadowing, or a sample of the harvest to come

Paul returns to adoption as a metaphor for salvation. One can be adopted legally as a child of God, but until we are glorified in the future resurrection, we are not fully adopted into the family. Although we are the legal heirs, we have not yet come into our inheritance. By way of analogy, a child may inherit millions of dollars in a trust fund, but because of the terms of the will they do not have full access to their inheritance until they turn twenty-one. But the child may have access to some of the inheritance, an allowance for living expenses managed, etc.

There is therefore a certainty in our hope of a full inheritance in in the future when we experience resurrection and glorification. Legally we are the heirs, but we are not actually in possession of the full inheritance at this point in time. But are there elements of that future inheritance we have now, as adopted children of God? What are these benefits?

Why Does “All Creation Groan” in Romans 8:19-22?

Paul’s thesis in Romans 8:18-22 is that our present suffering is not even worth comparing to the glory to be revealed in the children of God. He uses “consider” (λογίζομαι) once again, the same word for Abraham being declared righteous in 4:8. The believer will certainly suffer, but they should not consider than suffering to be on a par with the glory which is to be revealed. Those who are in Christ have a certain hope in their future redemption.

“Present suffering” in 8:18 may also refer to the effect of Adam’s sin on all creation. Not only do humans suffer, but so too does all of creation. Creation itself was damaged by Adam’s sin, so creation is also looking forward to the redemption of the children of God (v. 19-22).

Image result for groaning creationFirst, creation is eagerly longing for the revelation of God’s children. The noun translated “eagerly longing of creation” (ἀποκαραδοκία) is a very rare word which has the sense of “stretching the head forward” (TDNT 1:393). This noun is combined with the verb (ἀπεκδέχομαι, await eagerly), used for the eager expectation of the future resurrection (later in this passage, 8:23, 25; Phil 3:20; 1 Cor 1:7).There is an apocalyptic overtone in this verse. Paul is looking forward to the unveiling of the children of God in the coming resurrection.

Second, because of Adam’s rebellion, creation was subjected to futility. Looking back to the effect of sin on creation in Genesis 3, all creation is subjected against its will to worthlessness (ματαιότης). The word refers to frustration, or even frustrating purposelessness.  “The basis of creation’s continuing enslavement to transitoriness and mortality is the fall of mankind” (EDNT 3:313–314).

This is the word the LXX uses in Ecclesiastes 1:2, vanity of vanities, the meaninglessness of life. Recent commentaries on Ecclesiastes use the word “absurd” rather that vanity. Because of sin, creation itself is pointless and absurd.  In Ecclesiastes, this is demonstrated by the constant cycles of nature. There is a certain pointlessness to animal life, for example, which seems to exist to eat, sleep and mate.

Third, creation was put into bondage to decay. More than being pointless, creation suffers death as a result of the fall. The noun φθορά refers to decay of living things. The implication is that prior to the fall, creation was not in a state of decay; it functioned differently than it does today. More than this, creation is enslaved to decay, unable to free itself from the cycle of decay and death. We know that there is nothing in all of creation which does not die, rot or erode away to nothing given time.

Fourth, creation is groaning as in the pains of childbirth (v. 22). This vivid image may be drawn from apocalyptic literature (EDNT 3:311). The suffering of the world and the persecution of God’s people are sometimes described as “the birth pangs” of the new age (Isa 26:17; Micah 4:9; 4 Ezra 4:38-43)

Isaiah 26:17–18 (ESV)  Like a pregnant woman who writhes and cries out in her pangs when she is near to giving birth, so were we because of you, O Lord; 18 we were pregnant, we writhed, but we have given birth to wind. We have accomplished no deliverance in the earth, and the inhabitants of the world have not fallen.

4 Ezra 4:38-43  Then I answered and said, “O sovereign Lord, but all of us also are full of ungodliness. 39 And it is perhaps on account of us that the time of threshing is delayed for the righteous—on account of the sins of those who dwell on earth.” 40 He answered me and said, “Go and ask a woman who is with child if, when her nine months have been completed, her womb can keep the child within her any longer.” 41 “No, my lord,” I said, “it cannot.” He said to me, “In Hades the chambers of the souls are like the womb. 42 For just as a woman who is in travail makes haste to escape the pangs of birth, so also do these places hasten to give back those things that were committed to them from the beginning. 43 Then the things that you desire to see will be disclosed to you.”

Jesus refers to the suffering facing his disciples prior to his return as a series of “birth pains” (Matt 24:8). These pains are not the end itself, but the suffering and pain expected before the new age is fully revealed. In the Olivet Discourse, this will include natural suffering (disasters, etc.) but also direct persecution on account of Jesus Christ.

Paul is in step with Second Temple Judaism by describing creation as utterly corrupted by sin. Many in the first century were also looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth (Isaiah 65:17; 66:22; 1 Enoch 45:4-4; Jubilees 4:26).

Throughout Romans there has been a present and future aspect of redemption. We are save, but not wholly glorified yet we have yet to come into our inheritance.” Does the present aspect of our redemption have any impact on creation? Evangelicals are quick to talk about redeeming people, but to the redeemed people have any responsibility toward creation?

 

Walking according to the Spirit – Romans 8:5-8

Paul often contrasts living one’s life according to the flesh with living according to the Spirit. Galatians 5:16-25 a prime example, but there are others. This is an example of a “two ways” passage common in Judaism (Psalm 1) and early Christianity (Didache). On can either live out their life on the “road of righteousness” or the “road of wickedness.” This “two ways” thinking is ultimately based on the blessing and curses of the Law, which Moses called a “way of life” or a “way of death” (Deut 30:11-20).

kronk-shoulder-angelsUsually a writer would list a series of virtues and vices without any sort of description, as Paul does in the Galatians, the “deeds of the flesh” are listed in contrast to the “fruit of the Spirit.” Paul does not give a list of virtues or vices here since his purpose is simply to contrast the flesh and the Spirit.

In Greek philosophy, virtues were often the balance between two vices (bravery is the balance between cowardice and foolhardiness). Aristotle called virtue the “golden mean” between two vices. But for Paul, there is no middle ground: Paul is describing our spiritual lives as either dead to sin or alive in Christ, walking according to the flesh or walking according to the Spirit.

A person can “set the mind on the flesh” or “set the mind on the Spirit.” The contrast is between “mindset” (φρόνημα) only appears in Romans 8 in the New Testament, although the word-group is more common in the LXX. The word-group refers to a pattern of thinking, something like a worldview in contemporary English. Like worldview, this word can have both positive and negative connotations, depending on what makes up a person’s worldview. For example, φρόνησις for עָרְמָה in Job 5:13 for “presumptuous cleverness” (TDNT 9:224). Josephus used this word to describe the “tree of knowledge” (τὸ φυτὸν τῆς φρονήσεως, Ant., 1.37; LXX has τοῦ εἰδέναι). Josephus uses the same word when Solomon asks for wisdom (Ant. 8.23; TDNT 9:229).

If we imagine a worldview as a lens through which we look at reality, then a “mindset” in Romans 8 can either be flesh or Spirit. For any given issue, someone who does not have the Spirit of God may offer a solution radically different than those who walk by the Spirit. In the first century, for example, the value of a person who was a slave would be much different for a Christian than for an unsaved Roman. The same might be true for a person who was very ill; a Christian might risk their lives to help a sick person but a Roman might just let them die.

The most part this “Judeo-Christian ethic” has so permeated western culture even non-Christians see the value of most life (although there are notable exceptions). But there are many other ways a Christian will look at an ethical issue differently than a non-Christian. Let me offer two example, one bad example and one good.

First, the bad example: in the 1980s James Watt was secretary of the interior. He was a conservative Christian who genuinely believed Jesus was going to return very soon. Because of this he saw no value in caring for the environment, saying “I do not know how many future generations we can count on before the Lord returns, whatever it is we have to manage with a skill to leave the resources needed for future generations.” For Watt, his particular theological views blinded him to the importance of caring for the environment embedded the creation mandate in Genesis 1.

Second, a good example: during the reign of the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius plague broke out in Rome. The Emperor quickly left Rome, as did anyone with any means to do so. Compassion for the sick and dying was not a value in Roman culture. Christians, on the other hand, saw plague as an opportunity to care for people who were in desperate need, serving people who had no hope with love and compassion.

What are some other (positive) examples of a Christian worldview changing the way people think about an issue?

 

 

What is the “Law” in Romans 8:3?

By sending his Son, God accomplished what the law could not. But to what does the law refer in this Romans 8:3? Law may refer to the Mosaic Law, keeping to the context of Romans 7:1-12 or as a “principle” as in 7:21 (the “sin principle”).

Torah-fingerJames Dunn and N. T. Wright argue Paul is consistently contrasting the Mosaic Law (or at least the boundary markers of the Law) in Romans 7 and it makes sense he should continue to contrast the written code (7:6) and the law of the Spirit. Although the Law promised life to those who kept it perfectly, it was powerless to deal with the real problem facing humanity, the problem of sin.

Colin Kruse argues the second view is preferable since it makes Romans 8:1 a continuation of 7:21-25. There is a principle at work in the people who desire to do what is good, but find themselves doing what they know to be wrong. The person who is in Christ is freed from the sin principle (7:25) and is not able to be punished for that sin principle because it has been fulfilled by Christ.

A problem is Paul’s description of the Law as weak (ἀσθενέω, v. 3). The verb refers to something that is weakened, perhaps by illness. This is often the word-group used in the Gospels for those who are healed by Jesus. But Paul uses the word for any kind of weakness or inability, including the “weak brother” in Romans 14 who is unable to eat meat due to their conscience. In chapter 7 the purpose of the Mosaic Law was to define sin so that humanity could be justly punished and know they are in need of a savior. That is not a weakness or inability, but rather the purpose for which the Law was originally designed.

In either case, this law is powerless to set people free from the power of sin which results in a downward spiral into more sin and finally in death.

No Condemnation – Romans 8:1

Having described the wretched condition of people who know what the law demands but cannot keep it (7:21-24), Paul now declares that those who are in Christ have been set free from the Law of sin and Death (8:1-4)

broken-chainsCondemnation refers to a “the punishment following sentence” (BDAG). This is a rare word, only used in the New Testament here and Romans 5:16 and 5:18. In Romans 5, condemnation was the result of the first Adam’s rebellion against God. In that case, God acts as judge, finds Adam guilty and gives him the appropriate (and promised) punishment for his rebellion, death. Those who were under the law were also under the condemnation of the Law.

In Wisdom literature, this word can have the sense of people getting what they deserve. For example, in Wisdom 4:16, “The righteous who have died will condemn (κατακρίνω) the ungodly who are living, and youth that is quickly perfected will condemn (κατακρίνω) the prolonged old age of the unrighteous” (NRSV). Someone who persecutes the righteous will “get their comeuppance” and be persecuted themselves in the final judgment.

But Paul’s use here does not have the idea of recompense “but rather the principle of correspondence of deed and condition” (EDNT 2:260). The result of Adam’s sin was death because that was the natural result of his rebellion. In fact, God promised Adam that he would die if he ate from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.

The point of Romans 7 is all those under the law fell short of the righteous requirement of the law. Since this is the case, all humans stand condemned by the law and receive the wages of that all of the “in Adam” people receive, death.

But for those who are “in Christ” do not stand condemned since they are no longer “in Adam.” The natural condemnation of the law of sin and death no longer applies to them since they have been raised to new life with Jesus (Romans 6:11). It is important to see here that Paul is saying the “in Christ” person no longer is under the natural condemnation for falling short of the glory of God. They are no longer “walking by flesh” but rather “walking by the Spirit.”

The rest of Romans 8 is going to unpack what this means, but for now I want to focus on the contrast between the “wretched man” who stands condemned (7:24) and the “in Christ” person who is not under condemnation in the least. There is something liberating about this new state in which the Christian exists.

But if we have already been set free from the law of sin and death with oppressed us prior to Christ, why do we so quickly return to that old life which stands condemned?