Last revised: December 10, 2022
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RCL: Jeremiah 31:31-34; Romans 3:19-28; John 8:31-36
Opening Comments: Preaching the Gospel of New Creation
In 2022, the sermon constituted part 2 of key insights from the previous week, Proper 25C, yielding the sermon “Freed from the Us-vs-Them Thinking Trap, Part 2.” I propose that the Reformation was not only a failure to free us from the Us-vs-Them Thinking Trap, but it actually gripped us more firmly in the Trap, proliferating the ways in which we are Us-vs-Them. A tragic sign of this failure is the that the five hundred years of the Reformation uncoincidentally coincides with the five hundred plus years of White Supremacist Racism. A New Reformation must therefore be centered in be anti-racist, on dismantling and working to heal racism. The significance of Paul’s theology in Romans 3:19-28 must be the left-out verses of 3:29-30 where the clear bottom line is a God of both Jew and Gentile. The significance of Paul’s theology of grace must be a ministry of reconciliation (2 Cor 5:17-20), the proclamation of the Good News that God in the cross of Jesus the Messiah is creating one new humanity in place of all our divisions (Eph 2:15).
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Opening Comments, Part 2 (2019): “. . .the truth will make you free.” We are living through a time of crisis concerning truth in our nation. We have a president who is a pathological liar, with media outlets and millions of supporters who believe and pass-on the lies. What gets framed as “fake news” is actually the genuine journalism that follows accepted guidelines for pursuing the truth; and the news outlets that are lauded by the President pass-on the fake news that he peddles. We are facing the loss of our democracy to the authoritarian designs of our president, for whom truth is simply what he says it is — the hallmark of authoritarianism.
Jim Wallis, in his 2019 book Christ in Crisis: Why We Need to Reclaim Jesus, devotes Chapter 4 to “The Truth Question,” in which he brings the Gospel of John on truth together with the crisis we are currently facing. Today’s Gospel from John 8 figures prominently. I recommend reading it for guidance in speaking truth to power in our current situation. Wallis also brings in Mimetic Theory by quoting-at-length a blog by Girardian Adam Ericksen, “Truth, Lies, and the NFL.” Writing about Trump’s culture war on NFL players who kneel for the national anthem to protest racism in police forces, Ericksen cites MT:
Trump’s whole cultural narrative is based on a hostile lie, or what mimetic theory calls a “myth.” His weekend spat with the NFL is just one example of Trump’s mythical narrative.
According to mimetic theory, “myths” are stories we tell that silence the voice of the victim. The victim cries out for justice, which makes those in power uncomfortable. So the powerful start telling a mythical story that dehumanizes the victim. In the ancient myths, victims are (mis)understood to be monsters that threaten our community. Those in power control the cultural narrative by telling the myth that gets the majority of people to believe the lie that the victim is a guilty monster. The majority unite and pounce on the victim, whose voice is silenced by banishment or sacrifice.
Donald Trump attempts to push this mythical narrative on almost every minority: Muslims, Mexicans, African Americans, journalists, immigrants, the transgender community — and now we can include professional athletes in the long list of Trump’s scapegoats. The mythical narrative (i.e., the lie) he espouses is that these minorities pose a significant threat to American values.
The overall point of Wallis’s book is for would-be followers of Christ to follow more faithfully according to the biblical witness. To that end, on this day of remembering the Reformation, I would like to offer the two main points for me that can help lead us into the New Reformation.
First point: that the Christian revelation shows us that God is completely nonviolent. Mimetic Theory gives us a wholistic theory of violence. It is a preeminent human problem that threatens our self-annihilation because of the power of mimeticism to spiral downward into all-against-all violence . . . until we are saved by an all-against-one violence that creates the cultural structuring of us-vs-them reigned over by the gods who command the ‘good’, sacred violence to contain the ‘bad’ violence.
The problem is that ultimately both ‘good’ and ‘bad’ violence is violence, and so the endgame is ultimate, apocalyptic violence — the kind that has brought down every empire in history and now threatens us with nuclear annihilation, now exacerbated by the climate change crisis. Into this history has entered the true creator-god revealing the godself in the cross and resurrection of Jesus the Messiah as exclusively nonviolent, self-giving love. This revelation remained largely clear for a couple centuries until the church partnered with the Roman Empire and devolved into Christendom. The Reformation missed the opportunity to reassert this central doctrine of God as nonviolent. The New Reformation must make it central.
Theology that arises out of Mimetic Theory makes the nonviolence of God a central theme of revelation. Raymund Schwager, MT’s first major theologian, creatively melded it with von Balthazar’s Theo-Drama to feature God’s nonviolence in the unfolding revelation through history (see Jesus in the Drama of Salvation; 1990). James Alison continued the theme. Chapter 2 of Raising Abel (1996), “The Living God,” remains one of the most succinct and elegant versions of making the case for God as nonviolent — as even the chapter’s section headings make clear: “Jesus’ Perception of God,” “The First Step: God Pruned of Violence,” “The Second Step: The Revelation of God as Love,” “The Third Step: Creation in Christ.” Read this chapter! It makes clear the relevance of MT for theology.
More recent works by Girardian theologians continue to place nonviolence at the heart of things. Anthony Bartlett has offered a primer with Seven Stories: How to Study and Teach the Nonviolent Bible (2017). And Scott Cowdell has put forward a more complex working out of a Girardian theology within the context of our time’s other most compelling theological arguments, René Girard and the Nonviolent God (2018), extending Schwager’s melding of Girard’s work with the Theo-Drama of von Balthasar.
The New Reformation is already manifesting the Girardian theological influence through the works of theologians who don’t consider themselves “Girardian” but nevertheless show and cite the influence of his work. This is perhaps most remarkably true of white male conservative evangelicals who argue for the nonviolence of God as a point of their own personal conversions. The list is such authors is growing long by the year but I highlight three: Brian McLaren (especially Part II, “From a Violent God of Domination to a Nonviolent God of Liberation,” in his book The Great Spiritual Migration); Brian Zahnd (especially Sinners in the Hands of a Loving God); and Gregory Boyd (The Crucifixion of the Warrior God: Interpreting the Old Testament’s Violent Portraits of God in Light of the Cross, featuring Girard in Chapter 13, “The ‘Masks’ of a Humble God”).
Second Point: That Jesus the Messiah was sent into the world not to begin a new religion but to establish a new Way of being truly human, offering redemption for all religions. This is the main theme of lengthy exposition of the Romans 3 text below. It is also the central argument for reading Galatians (and the parallel texts of Romans) in my nomination for the most important biblical commentary of the last generation: J. Louis Martyn‘s Anchor Bible Commentary on Galatians. To close out his introduction is a section on “Opposition Among Religions,” for which he writes:
In Galatians the polarity between apocalypse and religion spells the end of all forms of opposition among religions. The apocalyptic, baptismal formula of Gal 3:28 — “There is neither Jew nor Greek . . . in Christ Jesus” — expresses Paul’s certainty that Christ is precisely not a religious figure at all, in the sense of playing a role in the distinction of sacred from profane. (38)
. . .We sense, then, the reason for Paul’s certainty that neither Christ nor Abraham is a religious figure, but we also see that, in Paul’s view, the antinomy between apocalypse and religion militates against the emergence of religion within the church. And for that reason the church is not a new religion set over against the old religion, Judaism. (39)
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In 2020 I focused on the second point above with the sermon “Jesus Is Saving Us from Religion” (and its video version). It’s based on my own translation of Romans 3:19-28 that, among a number of things, reads “law” as “religion.” Behind Paul’s argument and language is Jewish Torah, which is usually translated as “law” but is also essentially the Jewish religion. Law and religion were completed bound together in the ancient world of the First Century as twin pillars of their cultures.
I argue for the elements of my translation and give a version of it below, but it has been tweaked in recent years. So let me give the most recent version here:
St. Paul: 19We know that whatever religion says, it speaks to those who are ‘in’ religion, such that every mouth might be silenced, and the whole world might come under God’s judgment. 20 For “no flesh will be justified before God” by religious practice, for through religion comes consciousness of sin. 21 Now, then, beyond religion, the justice of God has been disclosed, and is attested by Scripture: 22 the justice of God through the faithfulness of Jesus the Messiah for all who trust. For there is no distinction, 23 since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; 24 they are now justified by God’s grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Messiah Jesus, 25 whom God intended to be the source of unification in his blood effective through faithfulness. God did this to show God’s justice, because in divine forbearance God granted amnesty for sins previously committed; 26 it was to prove at the present time that God’s justice is itself just in the very act of declaring everyone just by the faithfulness of Jesus.
Opposing Teacher: 27 Then what becomes of boasting?
St. Paul: It is excluded.
Opposing Teacher: By what religious practice?
St. Paul: By none, but rather by a ‘religion’ of faithfulness. 28 For we hold that a person is justified by faithfulness beyond religious practice.
1. Anthony Bartlett, Seven Stories, pp. 100-01, 143. First, in a Lesson on the Deuteronomic worldview, Bartlett offers Jeremiah 30-33, the “little book of consolation,” as an example of Girard’s view of the Hebrew Scriptures as a “text in travail.” Jeremiah in these chapters seems to be opening to something beyond the Deuteronomic worldview. Bartlett writes,
There is compassion in contrast to a predominant tone of judgment and punishment.
So, either God is two-faced, alternately kind and vengeful, or a deeper, more authentic meaning is emerging. A deeper truth of unbounded compassion, while wrath is a human construct. A two-faced “loving, but justly punishing” God cannot help but produce a deep emotional tension, as in a child who must continually first get a parent’s approval in order to be treated well. An unstable mixture of gentleness and violence is the result, a dangerous, unhappy state of being. But if a new understanding of God is emerging it proves that the previous “two-faced” version is a human construct. (100-01)
Second, in a Lesson on how the “cup of wrath” is transformed by Jesus in the Eucharistic Cup, he cites this passage in a paragraph on the “Cup of the New Covenant”:
The cup after supper is usually understood as the third cup (the cup of blessing or redemption). Paul calls the Eucharistic cup “the cup of blessing that we bless” and “the cup of the Lord” (1 Cor 10.16 & 21). In Luke, Jesus calls this cup, “The cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood” (Lk 22.20). The seder cup of blessing/redemption recalled the escape of the Hebrews from Egypt, but also the blood of the Egyptians who were killed when the angel of death passed over. Jesus takes this cup of blessing and uses it to reinterpret God’s plan and purpose in an entirely nonviolent way. The cup which is the new covenant in Jesus’ blood evokes Isaiah 53.12 and the Servant whose soul or life is “poured out.” It also makes a direct reference to Jer 31.31-34. The old covenant is abrogated. Jesus’ new covenant will be written instead on our hearts through the direct embracing of Jesus’ personal nonviolence and non-retaliation. (143)
2. James G. Williams, The Bible, Violence & the Sacred, p. 155; Williams’ comments on the prophet Jeremiah are on pages 144-145 and 154-156.
3. Raymund Schwager, Must There Be Scapegoats?, p. 118.
4. More generally on the prophet Jeremiah, see Gil Bailie, Violence Unveiled, pp. 177-184.
5. Robert Hamerton-Kelly, sermon from October 21, 2001 (Woodside Village Church).
Reflections and Questions
1. There’s a lot of talk about forgiveness, which has been a matter of much debate in our culture to begin with. Should those who have been grievously harmed — survivors of sexual abuse, for example — be expected to forgive their offenders? Can white colonialism be forgiven for slavery or its genocide against native peoples? (See Walter Wink‘s recent book, When the Powers Fall: Reconciliation in the Healing of Nations.) And how should our forgiveness of each other be distinguished from God’s forgiveness for us? Can we truly be expected to forgive as graciously as God forgives?
With much debate of the subject, one of the most rejected phrases currently is the maxim “forgive and forget.” When one comes to the point of forgiveness and reconciliation, it does not mean forgetting the offense. It means forgiving and reconciling in spite of the offense.
I think that a Girardian view on the matter would support the latter position. James Alison speaks of The Joy of Being Wrong; in other words, joy comes precisely through not forgetting but through knowing how much we are forgiven as we come to see the depth of our sin. Gil Bailie has been especially clear in emphasizing the fact that aleitheia, the Greek word for “truth,” literally means to “stop forgetting.” Part of the delusion of our sinfulness is to help us forget the resentment and violence that stands at the center of both our fallen selves and our sacred cultures. The cross becomes our means to stop forgetting. It is the truth that sets us free (John 8). It is why Jesus is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. All other religions and philosophies, including Christianity to the extent that it becomes a religion of the sacred, are part of the cover-up. Yes, they can come to have many positive aspects of creativity and community, but these very positive elements can be the central means for covering-up and keeping us in the delusion that we haven’t hopelessly fallen into resentment and violence. That is why the resentment and violence never completely leave us, but continues to jump up and bite us, in spite of our valiant efforts at thinking ourselves civilized, cultured, and full of “creative spirituality.” The only way out of the “eternal return” of the resentment and violence is to stop forgetting. The only way is through the Cross.
The question, then, is whether Jeremiah might have slightly missed the mark, slightly overstated the matter, by making forgiveness a matter of God’s forgetting. God’s remembering our sin no more might be a powerful way to state the matter of forgiveness, but does it end up being misleading? Does Jeremiah’s theology of forgiveness in 31:31-34 conflict with Jesus’ liberating truth in John 8, where Jesus won’t let the Jewish leaders forget that we have followed a father who is the essence of the Lie and a murderer from the beginning (John 8:44)? In fact, as Jesus stands before Pilate, about to be sentenced to the Cross, he once again states his mission: “For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth.” (John 18:37) In other words, Jesus came into this world that we might finally stop forgetting. No, forgiveness doesn’t come through God’s forgetfulness; it comes through God’s gracious love that both leads us into stopping to forget and, in doing so, helping us to finally begin to get beyond the resentment and violence. It comes through the Son who can speak a word of forgiveness even from the Cross, not in forgetfulness of it.
2. Since writing the above reflections on forgiveness, there have been at least two further significant insights. The first involves Jesus’ speaking a word of forgiveness from the Cross. It might be significant to note that Jesus does not directly forgive his persecutors. He doesn’t say, “I forgive you.” He prays, “Father, forgive them. . . .” As human beings, there are times when we might have trouble being able to directly forgive our persecutors. At those times, can we at least come to turn it over to God? It might even be to confess to God that we cannot forgive them, while allowing for the possibility that God might be able to and want to.
There might also be something about the indirectness of Jesus’ prayer for forgiveness that is more gracious to those who are in position to receive it. James Alison, in his recent book On Being Liked (ch. 3, “Re-imagining forgiveness: victory as reconciliation”), speaks about how sometimes a direct forgiveness can be used as vengeance, or at least taken that way. There are situations in which it is very difficult to say a direct “I forgive you” without seeming smug or condescending, even if we are genuine about it. What’s worse is that we can often actually intend it as a smug and condescending statement — in which case, it has become an act of vengeance, not forgiveness. So perhaps, as his persecutors stand mocking him, Jesus’ prayer to God is, at that moment, the most gracious way that he can speak a word of forgiveness.
3. The other important insight around forgiveness for me has come from those who talk about nonviolence as radical nonretaliation. This raises the question for me, “What is the opposite of forgiveness?” Isn’t it vengeance? And so isn’t forgiveness, first of all, an act of nonretaliation in a situation that usually calls forth vengeance? To forgive is to relinquish the desire for retaliation and vengeance. And so there is an important respect in which nonviolence and forgiveness are the same thing. They both involve radical nonretaliation.
1. The Greek dik words abound in this passage, appearing 10 times: once for the adjective hypodikos (v. 19, most often translated as “accountable”); 4 times for the verb dikaioō (vs. 20, 24, 26, 28, most often translated as “justify”); 4 times for the noun dikaiosynē (vs. 21, 22, 25, 26, most often translated as “righteousness”); and once for the adjective dikaios (v. 26, most often translated as “righteous”). Thus it is difficult to translate all these dik words in a way that makes clear they are all related. There are those who choose “righteousness” for the noun dikaiosynē and then “make right” or “declare right” for the verb dikaioō, the latter more often being translated as the crucial Reformation term “justify.” So another choice for dikaiosynē to be consistent with “justify” would be to translate it as “justice.” Louis Martyn in his groundbreaking commentary on Galatians chooses an older option in English, “rectification” and “rectify.”
My preference is to translate all the dik words with the root “just,” making the noun and verb “justice” and “justify,” respectively. The adjective dikaios is simply “just.” More difficult is the adjective hypodikos, “accountable.” To keep the “just” root word, I would suggest the phrase “brought to justice,” or “under judgment.” Note: the rather common Greek word adikos, often translated simply as “evil,” in keeping with my practice here would be translated as “unjust” — which it usually is in its only occurrence in Romans, at 3:5. (Misleading in this regard is to translate adikos as “dishonest” [NRSV] in Luke’s parable of the dismissed steward, Luke 16:10-11.)
2. ho nomos, “the law,” and ergon nomos, “works of the law.” In Paul’s own Aramaic/Hebrew tongue he would be speaking here of Torah, which is more than mere “law,” especially in our now secular understandings of the word. Prior to modern secularism, Paul’s understanding of “law” was entirely religious. In fact, in many respects Torah for him simply meant the Jewish religion. He may have been using ho nomos in a manner more generally than Torah, but certainly Torah represented for Paul the full stature, the epitome, of human law. And remember, again, that law in the ancient world was bound up with religion.
Similarly, for “works of the law.” Paul is talking about religious practice. In the specific context of Romans and Galatians, we see Paul’s argument against a ‘Judaizing’ Teacher in Galatia and Rome as specifically against making Gentile converts to take up all the practices of the Jewish religion, such as circumcision for males, and following all 613 commandments of the Torah. When he poses “faith” against “works of the law,” he is therefore posing a faithfulness which follows Christ to the cross in transcending human practice of religion. The problem all along with human religious practice is that it, too, has been enslaved under the powers of sin that divide us, working against God’s original intentions for Creation to be in harmony. Paul in Romans 3:19-26 is thus posing the cross as an event which transcends human religious practice to become the source of the unification of all things against a decay under the powers that separate us (Romans 8:18-39).
Louis Martyn in his Galatians is again helpful. He refers to the cross event as “apocalypse,” God breaking into our human realm and setting a “cosmic antinomy,” a divine instance of anti-law. In the introduction Martyn considers the charge of Galatians being anti-Judaic and writes,
For without exception, in the passages listed, as in others, the ruling polarity is not that of Christianity versus Judaism, church versus synagogue. As we will see repeatedly, that ruling polarity is rather the cosmic antinomy of God’s apocalyptic act in Christ versus religion, and thus the gospel versus religious tradition” (p. 37).
In other words, the Reformation was off-track to the extent that it used Paul’s message as one of Christian grace versus Jewish works in its own attack on Roman religion, unwittingly reinforcing anti-Judaism. Martyn is posing to us that Paul’s view of the Christ event is that it is supposed to carry us beyond all religion, precisely to the extent that religion has been oppositional — i.e., part of the problem, not the solution. Martyn writes,
With the advent of Christ, then, the antinomy between apocalypse and religion has been enacted by God once for all. Moreover, this antinomy is central to the way in which Paul does theology in Galatians, not least in connection with one of its major themes, rectification. As the antidote to what is wrong in the world does not lie in religion — religion being one of the major components of the wrong — so the point of departure from which there can be movement to set things right cannot be found in religion; as though, provided with a good religious foundation for a good religious ladder, one could ascend from the wrong to the right. Things are the other way around. God has elected to invade the realm of wrong — “the present evil age” (1:4) — by sending his Son and the Spirit of his Son into it from outside it. This apocalyptic invasion thus shows that to take the Sinaitic Law to the Gentiles — as the Teachers are doing — is to engage in a mission that is marked at its center by the impotence of religion.
We sense, then, the reason for Paul’s certainty that neither Christ nor Abraham is a religious figure, but we also see that, in Paul’s view, the antinomy between apocalypse and religion militates against the emergence of religion within the church. And for that reason the church is not a new religion set over against the old religion, Judaism. (p. 39)
In short, Martyn confirms what we are saying about Paul meaning “religion” when speaking about the “law” — no where more clearly than in describing the effect of Gentiles giving in to the Teacher:
When Gentiles turn to the observance of the Sinaitic Law after having been baptized into Christ, Paul says that they embrace a form of religion that is for them indistinguishable from the pagan religion into which they were born! For this step removes them from Christ (4:8-11; 5:4). Quite specifically, then, for Gentiles Law observance is nothing other than a religion — as opposed to God’s apocalypse in Christ — and therefore enslaving. (p. 39)
To better convey what Paul meant, as a pre-modern person without the secular separation of law from religion, by ho nomos and ergon nomos, I recommend translating these terms as “religion” and “religious practice.”
3. Vs 22: “the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe.” This is a key instance in which wording from St. Paul is translated as “faith in Jesus Christ,” a good Protestant rendering that emphasizes our having faith in Christ. But the most reliable writings of Paul never use the most common Greek word for “in” (en). Eph 1:15 and Col 1:4 use the preposition en for “faith in Christ,” but the Pauline authorship is contested. Most often in the uncontested letters of Paul, he uses a genitive construction pisteos ‘Iēsou Christou (e.g., Romans 3:22, 26; Gal 2:16, 3:22; Phil 3:9), which can be translated either as “faith of Jesus Christ” or “faith in Jesus Christ.” The former is the more typical way to translate a genitive construction, but the latter is the way that all modern translators choose to translate this particular one. A similarly structured genitive construction is used by Paul with regards to Abraham in Romans 4:16 and to the gospel in Phil 1:27, and the translators switch back to the usual way: “faith of Abraham” and “faith of the gospel.” (It wouldn’t make sense to say “faith in Abraham”!)
Among those who corroborate a reading against the current trend in translation is N. T. Wright in the New Interpreter’s Bible (Vol. 10):
This righteousness, this world-righting covenant faithfulness, has been revealed “through the faithfulness of Jesus the Messiah.” Though the phrase could mean “through faith in Jesus the Messiah,” the entire argument of the section strongly suggests that it is Jesus’ own pistis that is spoken of and that the word here means faithfulness, not faith (see the NRSV note and the secondary literature referred to in the Overview). This is not to say that Jesus himself was “justified by faith.” Nor does Paul envisage him, as does Hebrews, as the “pioneer” of Christian faith, the first one to believe in the way that Christians now believe (Heb 12:1-3). Nor is his “faith” a kind of meritorious work, an active obedience to be then accredited to those who belong to him. To be sure, Paul would have agreed that Jesus believed in the one he called Abba, Father, and that this faith sustained him in total obedience; but this is not the point he is making here. The point here is that Jesus has offered to God, at last, the faithfulness Israel had denied (3:2-3).
A further reason why pistis ‘Iēsou Christou here is likely to refer to Jesus’ own faithfulness is that, if taken instead to refer to the faith Christians have in Jesus, the next phrase (“for all who believe”) becomes almost entirely redundant, adding only the (admittedly important) “all.” The train of thought is clearer if we read it as “through the faithfulness of Jesus the Messiah, for the benefit of all who believe.” This then corresponds closely to the reading suggested above for 1:17: from God’s faithfulness to answering human faith. (It is also very close to Gal 3:22, where similar discussions have taken place.) [p. 470]
4. More needs to be said about pistis, “faith,” itself, and then the very unusual phrase nomos pistis, “law of faith.” First of all, we need to get beyond “faith” primarily in the sense of inward belief to “faithfulness” as pointing more to the way that relationships are lived out. So pistis ‘Iēsou Christou does not refer to what Jesus believed about God, or about himself as God, but rather to the way Jesus lived out his relationship to God, especially in going to the cross. And our “faith in Jesus” similarly does not refer so much to what we believe about Jesus as it does to the relationship we have in following in the way of Jesus. “Faith” points not so much to belief as it does to faithful discipleship.
Secondly, in this Pauline context of talking about the Christ event as transcending religion, I think that pistis points to what postmodern folks are trying to express with the word “spiritual” — for instance, when they say, “I’m not religious, but I’m spiritual.” Paul with the word pistis is trying to mark out something that transcends religion as part of the human reality that is enslaved to the powers of sinful human division and conflict. The cross is the source of God’s unifying powers of love, and pistis is what connects us, brings us into relationship with, that unifying power of the cross.
So in my translation below, I translate pistis as “faithfulness” and nomos pistis as “spiritual faithfulness.”
5. The translation of “the righteousness of God” (Gr: dikaiosynē theou) is also contested these days by Douglas Campbell, who translates it as “the deliverance of God” (hence, the title of his book; see more below). (Campbell, btw, can also be added to the list of scholars who translate pisteos ‘Iesou Christou as “the faithfulness of Jesus Christ,” or even “the fidelity of Jesus Christ.”) As per the discussion above in #1, I prefer to stay consistent with the dik-root words and translate this phrase as “the justice of God” — understanding that justice in the context of this passage means a saving act from God which delivers us from the powers of sin and death that divide us.
6. Vs. 25, hilastērios, “expiation,” “sacrifice of atonement.” Commentaries tell us that hilastērios was used in the Septuagint to translate the Hebrew word for “mercy seat,” the central place of the atonement ritual. We then might recall the well-used teaching tool of rendering atonement as at-one-ment, a process of making one, of reconciling. In my translation below, then, I render hilastērios as “source of unification.” It could also easily be “source of reconciliation.” In either case, I want to more directly pose what happens in the cross as the remedy for the powers of sin and death whose main consequence is division. These are the powers we read about in the climax to Paul’s proclamation in Romans 8:31-39, powers that condemn and thus threaten to separate us from the love of God. The law, or “religion,” is every bit as much caught under the effects of these powers, duped into a role of constantly condemning. The Reformation has simply given us another version of being duped, another religion that has been played by the powers of sin to divide us. The cross alone stands outside religion, even as the One Crucified was condemned as one cursed by religion, to give us a saving event in history that becomes the true hilastērios, the true source of unifying what sin has divided.
In his excellent Lesson on Atonement in Seven Stories, Tony Bartlett sheds this light on hilastērios:
Paul has been read in a number of ways, but there are none of the mechanics of satisfaction/ substitution in his letters, only vague allusions to sacrifice as a metaphor, full of confidence that Christ’s death “for us” changes everything. At Romans 3.25a we have a key text which uses sacrificial metaphor. But God, not man, puts forward the effective element, and if we read it in its original Greek, it is nothing like a “sacrifice” or “an atonement.” Rather it is hilasterion, translated in the Old Testament as “mercy seat,” and meaning a place in the Holy of Holies where the desired effect of sacrifice happens — where mercy takes place. The implications are massive. Only in the most convoluted and barbaric thinking can this event be interpreted as “God offering sacrifice (of Jesus) to himself.” Rather, in Christ, God is introducing into the human scene a completely new “holy space,” one where what was sought before in the violent mechanics of sacrifice now happens by the free revelation of God’s nonviolence (grace) in Christ. (p. 35)
7. With all of these exegetical notes in mind, I add the feature of two voices from Douglas Campbell‘s The Deliverance of God. One of Campbell’s main theses is that Paul’s Letter to the Romans is an example of First Century diatribe, in which an opponent’s voice, named by Campbell as simply the Teacher, is represented within the text in dialogue with the author’s argument. One of the first places where the opposing Teacher’s voice is fully heard, according to Campbell, is 1:18-32. The series of questions and answers in 3:1-7 is actually a dialogue where Paul is posing questions to the Teacher and the Teacher is answering. 3:19-26 represents Paul’s main statement of his views answering the forensic language of the Teacher (as opposed to Paul’s main statement of his Gospel in his own language of deliverance in Romans 5-8), and 3:27-4:3 represents a dialogue where the Teacher poses questions and Paul answers. (Based on Campbell’s work, I offer my own ‘voicing’ on the full passage of Romans 1:1-4:3 here — but not with all the elements of my translation of 3:19-28 immediately below.)
Given all these factors, then, I offer my own translation of today’s passage:
St. Paul: 19We know that whatever religion says, it speaks to those who are ‘in’ religion, such that every mouth might be silenced, and the whole world might come under God’s judgment. 20For “no flesh will be justified before God” by religious practice, for through religion comes consciousness of sin. 21Now, then, beyond religion, the justice of God has been disclosed, and is attested by Scripture: 22the justice of God through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ for all who trust. For there is no distinction, 23since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; 24they are now justified by God’s grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, 25whom God intended to be the source of unification in his blood effective through faithfulness. God did this to show God’s justice, because in divine forbearance God granted amnesty for sins previously committed; 26it was to prove at the present time that God’s justice is itself just in the very act of declaring everyone just by the faithfulness of Jesus.
Teacher: 27Then what becomes of boasting?
St. Paul: It is excluded.
Teacher: By what religious practice?
St. Paul: By none, but rather by a ‘religion’ of faithfulness. 28For we hold that a person is justified by faithfulness beyond religious practice.
The bottom line of my translation supports very much what Brian McLaren is doing in his book Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed Cross the Road?: Christian Identity in a Multi-Faith World. McLaren challenges Christians to examine the way in which our Christian identity is hostile to non-Christians. In that way it plays out the same as any other typical religion. And so he asks us if Jesus didn’t in fact come to transform the way we do religion so that our Christian identity is hospitable to others rather than hostile. In short, shouldn’t religion ultimately be that which unites us rather than just another thing human which divides us? This, I believe, is exactly what is behind the common self-expression today, “I’m not religious, but I’m spiritual.” This modern confession intuits a relationship between all religion as we know it as playing a significant role in human division and conflict. And it hopes for something else that truly has the power to unite us, a spiritual practice that brings us into communion with the God who is the source of all oneness.
In offering this translation of Romans 3:19-28, I believe that this is exactly what Paul is trying to lay out for us, with a Gospel whose source is the faithfulness of Jesus Christ in going to the cross. The cross is the event in history that transcends religion (or “the law”) so that now even religion can be redeemed — reformed! And so the so-called Reformation which we celebrate this day never yet happened according to this understanding of Paul! And it will not happen until we undertake what McLaren begins to lay out for us in his book, namely, a Re-forming of Christian identity from top to bottom that is hospitable to others rather than hostile. It will not happen until we properly understand Paul in Romans to be arguing for the cross as an apocalyptic event that transcends religion, and all of human culture, as the in-breaking power of God’s love to unify and heal what our sinfulness divides and destroys. (For more on “apocalyptic,” especially as something beyond the typical Protestant “forensic” orientation, see my exposition below of J. Louis Martyn‘s work in his commentary on Galatians.)
1. Douglas Campbell, The Deliverance of God: An Apocalyptic Rereading of Justification in Paul (see my review on the Amazon.com page). This is now the definitive book that must be contended with regarding any crucial interpretations of Romans. Campbell has four chapters, roughly 135 pages (601-735), covering Romans 3:21-31, as the heart of his argument that it is time for heirs of the Reformation to give up their Justification theology. Chapter 17, “The Deliverance of God, and Its Rhetorical Implications,” argues that dikaiosynē in Paul means liberation, deliverance, rescue, rather than a forensic imputation of rightness or justification. Paul’s Gospel is about creation being delivered from the powers of sin and death, powers that work against harmony, through an unconditionally gracious rescue operation by God’s faithful Messiah — instead of an imputation of “justified” graciously stamped on a “totally depraved” humanity. The latter Justification theology either devolves into a conditional grace based on the faith of the believer, instead of being based on the fidelity of the Messiah to his rescue mission, or it ends up wandering down the Calvinist path of double predestination, conditioned on God’s election of some but not others. (Luther seemingly chose the path of mysticism, refusing to go down the path of double predestination due to the mystery of God’s grace. Campbell instead chooses the Luther who centers his theology on a God who delivers the ungodly [Rom 4:5; 5:6] — in other words, all of humanity — as the Luther of unconditional grace. The other Luther reads Romans 1-3 in a flawed way that wanders down the path of conditional grace — short of double predestination.) Either way, the primary interpretations of Justification theology mean a conditional grace instead of the unconditional grace that the Reformation thought it stood for.
2. J. Louis Martyn, Galatians (Anchor Bible Series). If Campbell is correct that Paul is arguing against the same teachers in Rome as in Galatia, then Martyn’s groundbreaking commentary on Galatians is a valuable resource to understanding Romans. Martyn helps us to understand Paul’s relationship with the Teacher, both agreements and disagreements. He argues that Paul and the Teacher are together on emphasizing God’s action in Jesus Christ through the cross and resurrection as an apocalyptic event, an in-breaking of God’s saving action into our sinful human reality. The differences between Paul and the Teacher don’t appear until the situation of mission to Gentiles — when the difference appears of the Teacher assuming that converts must convert religions, becoming Jewish, and Paul doesn’t. It becomes more clear, then, that the Teacher’s position is one that Martyn calls forensic apocalypse, a salvific act conceived in terms of the law — a justification that is imputed, to use the Reformation language. Whereas for Paul the cross and resurrection reveal what Martyn calls a cosmic apocalypse: God acting to save us from powers of sin and death that enslave all that is human, including the law, including religion.
Let me repeat the key quote above, in which Martyn considers the charge of Galatians being anti-Judaic and writes,
For without exception, in the passages listed, as in others, the ruling polarity is not that of Christianity versus Judaism, church versus synagogue. As we will see repeatedly, that ruling polarity is rather the cosmic antinomy of God’s apocalyptic act in Christ versus religion, and thus the gospel versus religious tradition” (p. 37).
Martyn’s differentiation between forensic apocalypse and cosmic apocalypse has implications for Reformation theology that can’t be overstated in their importance. For hasn’t the Reformation largely ended up essentially taking the position of the Teacher instead of Paul?! The Lutheranism that I’ve grown up with stresses a justification that is imputed only — namely, forensic. It has seen Paul vs. the Teacher in its own rendering of faith vs. works, that the Teacher taught a Gospel based on works in the sense of outward deeds. The Reformation thus ultimately framed the difference in terms of inward belief vs. outward deeds.
But Martyn argues that this is based on a misunderstanding of both Paul and the Teacher whose difference must be parsed in terms of apocalypse, namely, in terms of how far-reaching God’s saving act in Jesus Christ goes. Protestantism, in misunderstanding Paul’s use of the key terms, has settled precisely for the Teacher’s apocalypse as forensic only, an imputed righteousness that gets us to heaven after we die but is limited when it comes to talking about sanctification in this life. According to Martyn, Paul’s cosmic apocalypse, then, and Paul’s use of faith vs. works language, is not about our inward belief vs. outward deeds. It is about Christ’s faithfulness — a relationship to God that is more immediate than what religious practice has facilitated — in bringing about a cosmic rescue from the powers of sin and death that even rescues “works” itself — “works” being shorthand for Paul’s longer “works of the law” which is really about religious practice. In other words, God’s cosmic salvation from the powers of sin even includes religion. With Mimetic Theory we gain a perspective on religion as fundamental to human evolution itself. With Martyn’s reading of Paul we can grasp the full significance of God in Jesus the Messiah rebirthing humanity through a salvation that includes religion at its heart.
To get at this insight we have to somehow get outside the embrace of fallen religion, which is why Paul always goes back to Abraham. For him Abraham represents a point outside culture-based religion, the law, when salvation begins simply as a relationship with God, a faithfulness, “faith.” The story of salvation begins when Abraham and Sarah are called out of their culture to a journey with the true God which keeps God’s people on the fringes of human culture and reliant on a trust relationship with an outlier God — which comes to full revelation in a crucified Messiah.
Thus, Paul’s argument against the Teacher is not about inward belief vs. outward deeds. It is about whether one has to convert religions to access this salvation because it is a salvation that includes all religions, even Paul’s own Jewish religion. “Faith” represents a relation with God that is more immediate than what religious practice, “works,” has been able to accomplish. The Christ event represents a going outside of religion, taking upon itself the curse of religion, to reconnect us to God in a way that saves us from the cosmic powers of sin and death that have enslaved even religion.
In short, the Reformation has remained within imperialist, culture-bound religion and simply given us another version of the deadly, divisive sinfulness that thwarts God’s original intention of harmony and oneness for the cosmos. It divides us on the basis of inward belief vs. outward deeds and then eternalizes that difference into the ultimate division of heaven and hell. According to this anti-Gospel, only the correct inward beliefs, about things like Jesus’ divinity, gets one into heaven; and salvation has nothing to do with outward deeds. In short, this Protestant version of the Gospel is every bit as forensic as the Teacher’s Gospel. And so it falls into its own version of thwarting God’s cosmic intentions of unifying the cosmos in the face of its sinful divisions. It is an anti-Gospel, another religion that divides, with the same deadly consequences as other religious practices before it. (Check its historical record in this regard!!) According to Paul’s argument against the Teacher, we don’t need another version of religious practice that simply repeats the sin on another basis. We need a reconciled relationship to God based on a faithfulness that transcends religion and thus has a potential to save even our religion.
In other words, it is time for the Reformation to finally take place! Not a pseudo-Reformation that leads us into another anti-Gospel, another means to divide us. It is time for us to embrace the faithful spirituality enabled by Jesus Christ and the continuing work of the Holy Spirit so that we finally begin to live into God’s intended harmony for the cosmos. (As mentioned above, we need to precisely take on the task which Brian McLaren begins to lay out for us in Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed Cross the Road?.)
3. Brian McLaren, The Great Spiritual Migration: How the World’s Largest Religion Is Seeking a Better Way to Be Christian. McLaren’s latest book (2016) goes even further in articulating a need for the Reformation to finally take place, using words like “conversion” and “migration” to describe what needs to take place within the Christian faith. For a review of this book, within a blog on “the faithfulness of Jesus Christ” in Romans 3:22, see my essay, “The Faithfulness of Jesus Christ”: Correcting a Deadly Mistranslation to Advance the Reformation . . . and a Preview of Brian McLaren’s New Book.
4. N.T. Wright, The Day the Revolution Began, ch. 13, “The Death of Jesus in Paul’s Letter to the Romans: Passover and Atonement.” Wright adds much to what we’ve said here, especially in terms of reading Paul in the context of the Hebrew Scriptures. He highlights all the ways in which the cross is a New Passover leading to a New Exodus. Wright also brings out the meaning of pistis as faithfulness, emphasizing God’s faithfulness to the covenant through Jesus the Messiah. He offers yet another translation of dikaiosynē theou as the “covenant faithfulness of God.”
But I also see a serious shortcoming to Wright’s reading of Romans 1-3, because he disagrees with Campbell’s reading that I’ve championed here. See my review of this book, especially its reading of Romans 1-3, “The Parable of the Pharisee and Tax Collector, N.T. Wright’s Latest Book, and the Idolatry of Anti-Idolatry.”
5. Robert Hamerton-Kelly, Sacred Violence, pp. 80-81.
6. James Alison, The Joy of Being Wrong, p. 118, as an example of God’s forgiving love revealed to us the resurrection; p. 126, 135, in elaborating the Pauline witness and the transformation of God’s wrath; p. 155, in elaborating the Pauline understanding of desire; p. 181, in commenting on the universality of sin.
7. James Alison, Knowing Jesus, excerpts on Justification by Faith.
Reflections and Questions
1. In 2012 the central task in preparation for preaching was work on the above translation. Then came the main image to use: a baseball locker room covered in plastic for the champagne celebration but not getting used because the game to eliminate the other team is lost. (My beloved Detroit Tigers were on the verge of being eliminated in the World Series.) Or for the election season: the image of gathering on Election Night to celebrate with friends but your candidate loses. This is how I would characterize our Reformation Day celebrations for me these days, because I see the victory that was supposed to happen as not yet having happened. When we correctly understand what Paul was saying in Romans (and elsewhere), then Reformation cannot be about other ways of dividing us as human beings — for example, into those who follow true religion vs. those who follow false religion, with one’s ultimate fate in the afterlife hanging in balance. Reformation needs to be about a faithful following of Jesus in the way of healing our divisions. This way can still be rejected and thus be a means of division. But at least we need to get to the point of understanding the Gospel as the invitation to be healed of our divisions. Christ came and let himself be pushed outside the bounds of all religion, cursed to death by them, in order that he might in the resurrection become the source of reconciliation. As Louis Martyn maintains, the “cosmic apocalypse” of the cross is not the beginning of a new religion. It is a healing reconciliation with the God whose Oneness can make us One. As Paul shockingly puts it in Ephesians 2:15, “Christ has abolished the law [recall my translation above as “religion”] with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two.” How can we have missed the point when it is stated so clearly and boldly?
The resulting sermon is titled “Celebrating the Victory of Faith.” I also wrote a newsletter column the day that might be titled “Fulfilling the Reformation.” Together they might be considered as a manifesto of where I hope the church to be headed. If I was running for bishop in the ELCA, they pretty well describe my vision for the Reformation church.
2. I believe (see “My Core Convictions,” IV.2) that translating pisteos Christou only in its objective form is a mistranslation of Paul which has led to a new works righteousness of Protestantism, based on the work of our believing: my act of believing becomes the only work that counts for salvation. On the contrary, I think that Paul is saying in this passage that righteousness comes from neither what we do or what we believe (which is, after all, still something we do). Righteousness comes solely through Jesus Christ, both from what he did and from the relationship with God which he faithfully lived out. I think that Paul’s short-hand way of saying this is pisteos ‘Iesou Christou, “the faith of Jesus Christ.” When we translate this phrase as “faith in Christ” it too easily becomes a matter of our being saved by virtue of what we believe. When we translate it as “the faith of Christ” the emphasis more properly remains on Christ, instead of on us. What saves us is Christ’s faith, which is commuted to us through the Holy Spirit so that his faith might live in us. It is his faith living in us that saves us and makes a new creation. Christ’s faith living in us definitively affects both our doing and believing.
3. Mimetic theory accounts for this difference in interpretations through its Trinitarian pattern of relationships. Modern, romantic theories of relations see only the subject-object split. Personal states of being, such as beliefs, are thus simply a matter of each person’s control in relationship to the object. We either believe in Christ, for example, or we don’t. Strictly personal choice.
Mimetic theory, on the other hand, sees personal states of being, such as desire or belief, in terms of the triangle of relationships between the triad of: subject — model/rival — object. We come by states of being such as belief via the Other. So the question is not simply a matter of choosing between beliefs; it also involves being in relationship with the right model of belief. For St. Paul this meant faith in Christ, i.e., being in relationship with the right model for one’s whole life, for one’s very being. The genitive construction pisteos Christou can thus be interpreted, under the light of mimetic theory, in both the objective and subjective modes at the same time. Christ can be both our model for faith and the object of our faith at the same time. With the dualistic interpretation of subject-object, the depth of relationship is lost, and it simply becomes a matter of my believing (subject) in Christ (object). I no longer fit Christ’s faith into the web of relationships as the essential key to my being able to come to faith in Christ in the first place.
This is what has happened, I think, to the Christian faith, especially in its Protestant variety (ironic, then, that this passage is a centerpiece for Reformation Day). It has lost its depth and breadth and become, like everything in the modern world, simply a matter of personal choice. My believing in Christ becomes its own form of works righteousness, something I must do to earn righteousness from God. Mimetic theory can provide the corrective to our understanding of faith, I think, just as its has done with desire.
Link here for a sermon that makes use of these insights, entitled “Saved by the Faith of Jesus Christ.”
4. In 2003, Reformation Sunday followed Proper 24B and its Gospel Lesson of Mark 10:35-45. I followed up a sermon critical of traditional atonement doctrines (“A ‘Who Dunnit’ with a Gracious Twist”), in which I started to debunk the notion of a wrathful God, with a sermon on the whole of Romans, to the extent that I backed up the previous sermon with Paul’s reinterpretation of the “wrath of God” in Romans. For a more complete exegesis of the “wrath of God” in Romans, link to the climax of Part II of “My Core Convictions.” For more complete reflections on the popularized versions of atonement, link to “The Anthropology of René Girard and Traditional Doctrines of Atonement”
Themes around atonement and the “wrath of God” were tied together by one of my favorite stories, Walter Wangerin, Jr.‘s story about his son stealing comic books (see The Manger is Empty, chapter 17, “Matthew, Seven, Eight, and Nine”). It is the story of a three year drama of trying to get his son Matthew to stop stealing comic books — to which the final resort had been a spanking, a measure so drastic for Wangerin that he had needed to leave the room and cry. Matthew didn’t cry; he cried. Matthew did finally stop stealing from that day onward, but it wasn’t because of the law. Here’s Wangerin’s conclusion to the story that so perfectly fits this day of marveling at God’s righteousness revealed as mercy instead of the law:
What wasn’t true, however, was how I thought the change had occurred in my son. I thought it was the spanking. I thought the law had done it.
The law can do many things, of course. It can frighten a child till his eyes go wide. It can restrain him and blame him and shame him, surely. But it cannot change him. So it was with Israel. So it is with all the people of God. So it was with Matthew. Mercy alone transfigures the human heart — mercy, which takes a human face.
For this is the final truth of my story:
Years after that spanking, Matthew and his mother were driving home from the shopping center. They were discussing things that had happened in the past. The topic of comic books came up. They talked of how he used to steal them, and of how long the practice continued.
Matthew said, “But you know, Mom, I haven’t stolen comic books for a long, long time.”
His mother said, “I know.” She drew the word out for gratitude: “I knoooow.”
Matthew mused a moment, then said, “Do you know why I stopped the stealing?”
“Sure,” said his mother. “Because Dad spanked you.”
“No, Mom,” said Matthew, my son, the child of my heart. He shook his head at his mother’s mistake. “No,” he said, “but because Dad cried.”
Hereafter, let every accuser of my son reckon with the mercy of God, and fall into a heap, and fail. For love accomplished what the law could not, and tears are more powerful than Sinai. Even the Prince of Accusers shall bring no charge against my son that the Final judge shall not dismiss. Satan, you are defeated! My God has loved my Matthew.
Do you know why I stopped the stealing?
Sure. Because Dad spanked you.
No, Mom. No. But because Dad cried. (pp.131-132)
Link to the sermon “Re-Forming Our Faith in God.”
5. Often times, our version of faith means believing the right things about God, in other words, having correct theology. I recall my own Lutheran Church — Missouri Synod roots and subsequently times at table with LC-MS colleagues, whose brand of Lutheran fundamentalism make what I consider the Protestant brand of works righteousness patently obvious to me. They are not supposed to even pray with fellow Christians unless their theology is deemed pure (i.e., clean as opposed to unclean, sacred as opposed to profane, in other words, the same old religion of the Sacred). Correct theology may not as obviously be a “good work” we have to do, but we shouldn’t let ourselves be fooled by that. And correct theology doesn’t even meet any practical needs of salvation — unless it is that brand of salvation I’ve come to reject, that God punishes to eternal damnation those who don’t believe in Jesus Christ. God in Jesus Christ is saving us from our violence, not divine violence. And, meanwhile, correct theology doesn’t feed a starving person. In my book, it is a pale, hideous form of “good work” that often ends up distracting us from doing the truly good work of serving the least of our brothers and sisters. The latter are the good works which are properly fruits of the righteousness graciously given us through Jesus Christ.
Is there a role for correct theology? Yes! If it helps lead us into a relationship with the nonviolent, loving God of Jesus Christ. Or, in the case of René Girard, it was correct, evangelical anthropology that helped lead him into that relationship — though it wasn’t that alone. See an account of his conversion in The Girard Reader, pp. 283ff.
6. The Philippians 3 text (which appears in the Year A lectionary shortly before Reformation Day, Proper 22A) contains what I think is the most obvious instance of incorrectly translating pisteos Christou. Consider 3:8-11:
More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ (pisteos Christou), the righteousness from God based on faith. I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead.
Doesn’t it make more sense in verse nine to translate it as the “faith of Christ”? That’s why St. Paul wants to know Christ, his death and resurrection, and wants Christ to live in him; so that he can live by Christ’s faith, which is the only thing that can truly make us righteous.
7. Another passage that has connected for me with Reformation Sunday during Year A has been Matthew’s parable of the Vineyard Growers (see Proper 20A). Here’s a parable from Jesus where grace and work are seamlessly woven together. We can hardly imagine a more gracious ending: those who work the last couple hours of the day are paid the same life-sustaining daily wage as those who worked the whole day. It is a picture so gracious that it scandalizes us. But notice just as prominently the theme of a call to work. Jesus begins the parable: “For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard.” The kingdom of heaven is a call to work! And the parable never mentions the vineyard owner needing more laborers. When he goes out into the marketplace throughout the day to hire more workers, the text doesn’t tell us about his need for more workers. No, it tells us about the worker’s need to work; he notices their idleness:
And about five o’clock he went out and found others standing around; and he said to them, “Why are you standing here idle all day?” They said to him, “Because no one has hired us.” He said to them, “You also go into the vineyard.”
The Creator’s call for us to share in the work of creation is itself the beginning of grace. And then, when we set up our own work, following the desires of one another rather than of God, God meets us with the grace of Jesus Christ and his faith to finally follow the call which we have largely ignored or distorted into our own work. Through the faithful work of Jesus Christ, we finally have the power to begin doing God’s work, which we have been called to do since the breaking of the new day. In the grace of forgiveness, we realize that we are all workers hired late in the day, and that Christ was the only one who truly did God’s work from the beginning. When, by the power of the Holy Spirit, we receive Christ’s faith, we are empowered to do his same work, which is the work we have been called to do all along.
Link here for a sermon on this theme of work, entitled “The Grace of Work.”
1. John 8 is a crucial Girardian text, especially vs. 44: “You are from your father the devil, and you choose to do your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks according to his own nature, for he is a liar and the father of lies.” This one verse indicates a distorted, Satanic desire that has issued in murder since the beginning of (human) time. One will find that almost every Girardian book that deals with scripture will reference this passage in the context of the Johannine insight into (to use Robert Hamerton-Kelly’s phrase) the Generative Mimetic Scapegoating Mechanism. So beginning with René Girard himself: Things Hidden, p. 161; The Scapegoat, p. 196. In his most recent book, I See Satan Fall Like Lightning, gives another expansive reading of this text, especially pp. 38-43 of chapter three on “Satan.”
2. James Alison, Faith Beyond Resentment; the most expansive Girardian reading of John 8 is offered as chapter 3, “Jesus’ Fraternal Relocation of God,” pp. 56-85. I think it stands up there with Alison’s reading of John 9 as groundbreaking theology.
3. Gil Bailie, Violence Unveiled, pp. 220-233; “The Gospel of John” audio tape series, tape #1
4. James G. Williams, The Bible, Violence & the Sacred, pp. 204-210
5. Raymund Schwager, Must There Be Scapegoats?, pp. 157-163; Jesus in the Drama of Salvation, p. 148 (where he takes on the view that John 8:44 is an example of how Christians denigrate the Jews).
6. In March of 2001, I was at a conference with a presentation on the Historical Jesus Movement, and John 8 actually came up as an obvious example of anti-Semitism in the Gospels. I wrote a response, which is posted on this website as “A Girardian Take on the Historical Jesus Movement.”
7. James Alison, Raising Abel, pp. 63-65; The Joy of Being Wrong, pp. 119-125. Particularly poignant, I think, is Alison’s reading of John 8 in his section in RA entitled “Jesus’ Creation of Divine Paternity for Us” (pp. 63-65). It also provides a good follow-up to what was emphasized last week in Year A about our rootedness in death; or to the discussion of being God’s children in recent weeks for Year B. Another way of putting the matter is by realizing our paternity in a murderous Satan as opposed to the God life. The question which Alison poses in this section is: of which god are we children? The idolatrous gods of death, represented by the devil, or the true God of Jesus Christ, the God of life? Alison writes:
If we begin with a general notion of God, and understand that it so happened that Jesus called this God his Father, then we would have an image of someone who was insisting, rather pretentiously, that he had a special relationship with someone who is, in principle, equally accessible to all. This makes him rather like teacher’s pet: someone rather despicable in the eyes of everyone else. Well, this is the inverse of what happens in the way in which Jesus speaks of “my Father,” and says things like, “no one comes to the Father but by me” (Jn 14:6).
Jesus starts from a completely different position: that there is no general notion of God that is in principle accessible to all, but that the available notions of God are pretty much false, and not only false, but also fatal. This position is amply illustrated in his discussion with some Jews who had believed in him in John 8, where he compares two different sorts of father: his Father and the father of his interlocutors. These notions of paternity are radically and incompatibly different: one notion is that of a father who, however unblemished his pedigree seems to be, in practice leads his children to lying and killing. Jesus links this father to the murder of Abel by Cain (Jn 8:44). We might call him the father of the founding murder; traditionally he is known as the devil, and the devil understood not as a mythical figure, red, with horns like the Greek god Pan, with a trident in his hand “all the better to roast you with,” but that much more worrying figure, a satanized god, someone who seems to be God but is in fact an obstacle, an accusation, the whisperer behind the lynch. Jesus is saying, in reality, to his interlocutors: the God who has been revealing himself to Israel during all this time is not the one who you say; your interpretation and use of God turn him into Satan; only my interpretation of him is faithful to who God truly is.
Jesus affirms that his Father is unknown and impossible to know except through him, and not because he’s being pretentious, or teacher’s pet, but because the secret of that satanized god is death: while people are still formed by a world which begins and ends in death they have no way of knowing a God who has nothing to do with death. Only someone who does not know death can begin to make accessible who that God is. So Jesus, at the same time as he makes possible belief in the utter vivaciousness of God, also creates the possibility of God’s paternity among human beings. Before Jesus’ self-giving it was effectively impossible that we be children of the Father, that is, moved from within by one who is self-giving love, because we were locked in to death. The possibility of coming to be children came about not through some general decree of adoption, but through a creative act that demanded a mise-en-scène, a particular human acting out.
I want to emphasize this once more: Jesus didn’t come to tell us that God is our Father. That is excessively banal. He came to create the possibility that God in fact be our Father, or rather, that we should really become God’s children, which is, in every case, something strictly impossible for humans to be naturally, since we are all enclosed in a mistaken identification of God with an ambiguous or satanic figure. This is what John understands when he talks of “the world,” “the prince of this world” and so on. He is talking about life under the paternity of the murderous lie. If you read Jn 15:18-16:4 in this light, it may make more sense than before: “the hour is coming when whoever kills you will think that they are offering a service to God, and this they will do because they have not known the Father nor me” (Jn 16:2-3). There we have the two different sorts of paternity set out with absolute clarity: the paternity which kills and persecutes so as to serve “god,” and the paternity which is shown in the self-giving in the midst of violence as a witness to the complete vivaciousness of the God who knows not death.
Now, this puts into question any universal notion of God, with respect to whom we can agree in polite conversations, with little phrases like: “after all, we’re all God’s children.” Of which god are we children? This can be deduced from our practical behavior: the revelation of God’s complete aliveness is the same thing as the making possible the practical living out of a way of bearing witness to that vivacity, the style of life of a witness, or, in Greek, a martyr, a style of life that is always prepared to run the risk of being expelled rather than participating in any human solidarity in expulsion. It seems important to emphasize this since, if we don’t, we may have too familiar and domesticated a notion of God, which will make it difficult for us to wake up to the strangeness of the fact that it needed someone to die to make it possible for us to understand how different our real Father and Creator is. There is no access to him except from within that process of self-giving. (pp. 63-65)
8. Isn’t the matter of truth first and foremost a matter of the true God? Human anthropology has fallen into an idolatry of gods of violence. In Jesus Christ we finally meet a creator God of love, a God who is light, and in whom there is no darkness at all. Philosophically, St. John posed this as the Logos of Love vs. the Logos of Violence. See René Girard‘s brilliant chapter “The Logos of Heraclitus and the Logos of John” (Things Hidden, Book II, Chapter 4), and/or the excerpt from this chapter in the essay on this website “René Girard: the Anthropology of the Cross as Alternative to Post-Modern Literary Criticism” — in which Girard says, for example, “The Johannine Logos discloses the truth of violence by having itself expelled. . . . The Logos of love puts up no resistance; it always allows itself to be expelled by the Logos of violence.”
9. Anthony Bartlett, Seven Stories, p. 87. In a Lesson that reads the Genesis stories into the New Testament, Bartlett reads the Cain and Abel story into Luke 11:49-51 and John 8:34-44:
Jesus identifies murder as the original sin. He is addressing those seeking to kill him and says that, though they think they are children of Abraham, their real father is the father of lies, “a murderer from the beginning.” (Because Jesus is here indicting the Judean authorities, translated as “Jews,” the text has been read as anti-Semitic, but it is an anthropological statement directed at those who represent a sacred order of violence.) Here in fact Jesus identifies sin with murder. The foundation of the world is built with the shedding of innocent blood, which is then covered up with lies. For Jesus it is about Abel, not Adam. Abel is the paradigm figure — the innocent victim, for whose blood all generations colluding in these murders are answerable.
When interpreting his tradition, Jesus’ approach is much more anthropological — he deals with the heart of the matter from the Jewish scriptures which is bloodshed. (87)
Reflections and Questions
1. We’ve already mentioned the Greek word for truth, aleitheia, meaning literally, stop forgetting. Also important is the Hebrew word often translated as truth, emet. My Bibleworks computer program (highly recommended!) helps me discover that truth is no less than the fourth meaning of emet. Placing the pointer/cursor over the word emet, it instantly gives me the following from Whittaker’s Revised BDB Lexicon, p. 54:
1. reliability, sureness. 2. stability, continuance. 3. faithfulness, reliableness: (a) of men. (b) an attribute of God. 4. truth (a) as spoken. (b) of testimony and judgment. (c) of divine instruction. (d) truth as a body of ethical or religious knowledge.
In other words, the Hebrew word for truth should come as no surprise from a covenant people in relationship to the Creator-God of the universe. Truth is a reliability of covenant relationship. It is faithfulness. In English, we sometimes say things like, “He is true to his wife,” meaning faithful. But this has become a rare usage of true.
2. Then again, perhaps this Hebrew meaning of truth can help revitalize our Western use of faith. Our reflections on Romans 3 lamented our impoverished sense of faith. Our sense of faith has become more like our sense of truth: faith is the science of believing the right things about God, of having a correct theology. What if it were the other way around, that we let the Hebrew meaning of truth revitalize our sense of faith? Or the Hebrew sense of faithfulness revitalize our sense of truth?
3. One of my favorite stories about truth is the 1981 movie Absence of Malice. A newspaper reporter (Sally Field as “Megan”) poses her sense of truth against a wrongly implicated man (Paul Newman as “Michael”) whose sense of truth has more to do with faithfulness in relationships. Megan and Michael subsequently fall into a romantic relationship that breaks off again when Megan goes back to being a reporter with Michael, and the have the following conversation:
Michael: You wanna know the truth? O.K., you wanna ask me as a person, I’ll tell you. You ask me as a reporter, I’ve got no comment.
Megan: That’s not fair!
Michael: Not fair to who? Wait a minute. You don’t write the truth. You write what people say. You overhear. You eavesdrop. You don’t come across truth that easy. Maybe it’s just what you think, what you feel. I don’t need your goddam newspaper to decide what they’re gonna do with me, or who I am.
Megan: Then you tell me: Who are you?
Michael: You mean you’re not sure yet?
Michael’s sense of truth is more in the sense of faithfulness in a relationship, and Megan still doesn’t trust him, so he breaks things off. After Michael sets up those investigating him for a big fall (the lead investigator gets fired), Megan talks to the reporter who writes the story and has to interview Megan because she had a relationship with Michael. In reading what she has written about the relationship, the reporter asks, “Is that true?” Megan responds, “No, but it’s accurate.” Megan has finally understood the difference between truth as accuracy and truth as faithfulness in a relationship.
Another window into these differing senses of truth is the Hebrew word emet, which sometimes is translated as “truth,” but just as often is translated as “faithfulness.” In light of our interpretation of today’s Second Reading, one might say that the Greek word pistis is a good translation for the Hebrew word emet — and then alētheia in John’s Greek text. Truth, as faithfulness, is what sets us free.
4. How has the scientific experience of truth been so productive when bracketing out God? And how is the scientific experience of truth related to truth as faithfulness in relationships? Girard has suggested a connection in one his best quotable quotes:
The invention of science is not the reason that there are no longer witch-hunts, but the fact that there are no longer witch-hunts is the reason that science has been invented. The scientific spirit, like the spirit of enterprise in an economy, is a by-product of the profound action of the Gospel text. The modern Western world has forgotten the revelation in favor of its by-products, making them weapons and instruments of power…. (The Scapegoat, pp. 204-205)
Faithfulness to persons, a reluctance to do violence against them, motivated us to find different kinds of explanation. The history behind Girard’s comment is that our faithfulness to persons finally motivated us to stop blaming them — as, for example, witches — and to look for other causes of the evils to befall us. Before science (and even after!), it was commonplace to find a personal cause behind the bad things that happen to us. If a drought hit a New England town in the early seventeenth century, they might have been likely to blame a witch. When faithfulness to such persons finally got in the way of continuing such violence, we began seeking and finding impersonal kinds of causes. This, conjectures Girard, is the impetus behind the development of modern Western science.
And the impetus behind such faithfulness to persons is the Good News story of Jesus Christ, who himself became one of those blamed and sacrificed — only to have God, in the ultimate (eschatologically speaking) act of faithfulness, raise him from the dead. To those to whom he appeared as the Risen Lord, a new impulse, a Holy Spirit, was let loose into the world which empowers disciples to get behind that supposedly righteous sacrifice and find a different way to Holy Communion, a different way to staying together faithfully in community without having to resort to violent expulsion. (See also the sermon “Healing, Pt. III: ‘Peace Beyond Our Fear and Hope Beyond Our Sorrow’.”)
We haven’t even begun to ponder the second part of the quote from Girard, concerning the effects on science of having forgotten the spirit behind its existence. I’ll leave the reader to ponder that weighty question.
5. In #8 under “Resources” above, we raised the question, “Isn’t the matter of truth first and foremost a matter of the true God?” On Reformation Sunday that is still the question for me as I yearn for a Reformation in the church that answers that question in a most decisive way. Luther tried to show us a God of mercy in Jesus Christ, as opposed to our idolatrous god of wrath (e.g., the one still plaguing us in substitutionary doctrines of atonement; link to “The Anthropology of René Girard and Traditional Doctrines of Atonement“). And he did so in facing the kind of violence from the church we truly need to come to see and understand. Yet somehow we still largely missed it. We have missed the crucial choice between our gods of violence and the God of love in Jesus Christ. We continue to use our god of violence to justify our doing violence. We have continued to miss the fact that God in Christ is saving us from our violence, to the extent that we still make the faith about Jesus saving us from God’s ultimate violence of a place we call hell, that holding tank for eternal divine punishment.
That is why I am so unabashedly evangelical in these pages about the opportunity I believe we have in finally having an evangelical anthropology to go with our attempts at evangelical theology. It is the key to at long last experiencing Reformation. Girard’s work can help lead us into a more focused understanding and faith around what I think should be a matter of ultimate concern: human violence, and its cause in fallen human desire. Since the foundation of our worlds, we have fallen into idolatries that aid us in veiling our full responsibility for violence. We heap the mimetic violence of our communities onto our scapegoats, all with sacred justification.
Violence is the quintessential matter of life and death. It is what forever threatens to break apart human community such that we fail to survive. God in Jesus Christ comes into this world to invite us into the realm of the only ultimately victorious power over that of human violence: the faithfulness of an unconditionally loving and forgiving Creator-God.