An Excerpt for James Alison's The Joy of Being Wrong: Original Sin Through Easter Eyes (New York: Crossroad, 1998), pages 125-130.

The Pauline Witness

If it can be accepted that one of the first fruits of the resurrection in terms of human understanding is a new understanding of God (deathless, loving his son, and thus showing righteousness), and simultaneously, a new understanding of humankind (constituted in death, killing the son, and thus showing sinfulness, within a context of forgiveness), then we can imagine (at least) two stages to the preaching of this new insight. The first is an early stage in which this insight is preached as such, within the terms of reference of the linguistic-religious matrix within which the insight was born. The second stage is the gradual development from this insight of a new language about God and about humankind, where, consonant with the insight itself, there begins to develop a theology based on the new understanding of God, and a dependent anthropology based on the new understanding of humanity. It seems to me that we have evidence of exactly this process in the juxtaposition of the Pauline and the Johannine witnesses.

In the Johannine witness, set out above, we have a later stage in the development where the anthropological working out of the insight is clearer, as is the clarification of the understanding of God from elements of discourse formed within human violence. (1) Thus John is able both to offer a theology worked out from the new understanding of God, and reveal the anthropological mechanism that led to the revelation more clearly as an anthropological mechanism. In the Pauline witness we have a somewhat earlier stage in the working out of the same insight, where the place of the Johannine anthropological mechanism is taken by Paul's meditation on the function of the law. It seems to me that by reading the Pauline version of the same basic insight in the light of the Johannine development it becomes possible to achieve a certain clarity as to what Paul is about that is entirely faithful to his thought. The evidence is to be found in the first eight chapters of Romans. (2)

In the first place we can see that for Paul the Gospel is the Gospel of the righteousness of God. This is what the death and resurrection of Jesus has revealed for him. That is shown in Romans 1:17, and again in Romans 3:25. What has happened in between these two references is that Paul, because of the necessity of clarifying the question of the exact theological nature of the Law, has gone in for a long explanation of the inverse consequence of the same revelation of the righteousness of God: the revelation of what he calls the wrath of God. The content of this revelation is exactly the same as what I suggested above: that all humans are constitutionally wrong (we all have a "debased mind," 1:28), and constitutionally idolaters, as is demonstrated by our not knowing the righteousness of God. It would be as well to examine this notion of the wrath of God because of the easy misunderstanding to which it is prone.

The word wrath (orgé) appears ten times in Romans. Only once does it appear as the wrath of God (Rom. 1:18). On the one occasion where it appears to be something inflicted by God on people as a result of our wickedness (Rom. 3:5) Paul expressly indicates the mythical nature of the terminology ("I speak in a human way"). On all the other occasions where the term appears (2:5, 8; 4:15; 5:9; 9:22; 12:19; 13:4, 5) it is impersonal. Even in the first case, where the orgé is linked to theou the content of the wrath of God is itself a demythification of a vindictive account of God (whose righteousness has just been declared). For the content of the wrath is the handing over by God of us to ourselves. Three times in the following verses the content of the wrath is described in terms of handing over: 1:24; 1:26; and 1:28. That is to say that the wrath, rather than being an act of divine vengeance is a divine non-resistance to human evil. (3) However, I would suggest that it is more than that. The word "handed over" (paredoken) has, in primitive Christian sources a particularly subtle set of resonances. (4) For God is described as handing over (paredoken) his own son to us in a text no further from our own than Romans 8:32. The handing over of the son to us, and the handing over of ourselves to sin appear to be at the very least parallel. The same verb (paredothé) is used in 4:25 where Jesus was handed over for our trespasses, and raised for our justification. I would suggest that it is the handing over of the son to our killing him that is in fact the same thing as handing us over to our own sins. Thus wrath is life in the sort of world which kills the son of God.

It would seem that here (and especially in 4:25) we have a remnant of a very early transference of terminology, or word play. The same process can be observed in the only other (and earlier) Pauline use of the word wrath, 1 Thessalonians 2:16. There wrath (described impersonally, simply "the wrath") has come upon the Jews "unto the end." The content of the wrath is the persecution by the Jews, killing Jesus and the prophets. The problem is not merely that they have killed Jesus, but they have not received the word of God, and therefore remain in wrath - which would seem to be the delusions of religion based on persecution from which the Thessalonians have been set free by receiving God's word and learning to imitate Christ's suffering of persecution. Again, the defining factor in wrath is the death of Christ.

It becomes possible to suggest then a series of stages in the transformation of the sense of the word "wrath." There is abundant evidence that in a very early representation of Jesus' death, following Isaiah 53, the crucifixion was represented as Jesus bearing the iniquity of us all. (5) The divine wrath that should have fallen on Israel fell on him. The next stage is the realization that the language of the divine wrath itself, in the light of the resurrection, must be reconsidered. However, within a highly conservative (i.e. non-proto Marcionite) cultural matrix we have, prior to the elaboration of a completely new theological language, the ironic turning upside-down of the old. It is to exactly this stage that Paul bears witness, even going so far as to introduce an explicit note as to the ambiguity of the language of wrath (3:5). So, we have a gradual ironic subversion of the language of wrath, whereby that which is initially seen as something active (God being angry) is recast to show God being righteous in the midst of human anger, but without losing the word wrath. Something of the same process can be seen (but more obviously) in the Johannine reworking of the theme of God's judgment whereby God's judgment of humanity consists not in any judgement actively exercised by God, but in the judgement undergone by Jesus at the hands of men. We are judged by our relationship to that judgement. We see then how God "handing over" Jesus to us can be described as God's wrath, when the content of that wrath is the human violence exercised against Jesus, or the simultaneous handing over of ourselves to idolatry typified in the killing of Jesus. The Pauline use of the word "wrath" demonstrates what I tried to indicate above in terms of the slow process of the separation of the properly theological and the properly (but dependently) anthropological discourses that are the necessary outworkings of the double revelation flowing from the resurrection: that of who God really is, and of what humanity really is. Paul is at an earlier stage than John in the same process.

The next factor in the Pauline testimony is not only the revelation of human idolatry, but its universal quality. This is abundantly illustrated in the first three chapters of Romans where Paul is keen to illustrate precisely that all, both Jews and Greeks, are under the power of sin (Rom. 3:9).

It is not only sin that is universal, but for anyone who believes in the goodness of God that has been made manifest in the handing over of Jesus and then his raising up, then righteousness is universally available. It is of course the same insight that has brought the understanding of wrath to its sharpest definition -- the killing of the son of God -- that has made it possible to be set free from wrath. This is the import of 5:9: "Since therefore we are now justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath." The true understanding of wrath came about exactly at the same moment as there emerged the possibility of being freed from it: it is the forgiveness of the resurrection which defines the nature of sin.

This of course leads Paul into a highly complex series of arguments about the Law which it is not the place to follow here. However, it seems important to indicate that it is precisely from his understanding of the universal nature of the sinfulness of humanity that he understands that Law, which is in itself holy (7:12), has become a function of that sinfulness. In the first place, the law brings about knowledge of sin (3:20) just as it also bears witness to the righteousness of God, along with the prophets (3:21). However, it does not only serve as an epistemological instrument, in the good sense of letting people know what sin is. It is an instrument of wrath (4:15). That is to say, that the knowledge of sin that it brings about, rather than being salvific, becomes part of the sinful human world of mutual judgment and recrimination. At least where there is no law, there is no transgression.

Paul indicates however that the law actually increases sin (5:20). It is hard not to read 5:21 as indicating that the increase of sin produced by the law was made manifest in the death of Jesus ("sin reigned in death"), while the resurrection brought about that "grace might reign through righteousness." Paul goes even further with this line of thought in 7:5, where the law again has an active rôle in arousing sin. I would suggest that this verse is wrongly interpreted if "flesh" is taken in the modern debased sense (i.e. basically sexual). It seems far more probable (and in line with Pauline usage) (6) that "flesh" means "within the Jewish religious framework", and that the sinful passions in question, rather than lust etc. mean the persecutory zeal which led Paul to persecute christians -- that is, the zeal which was at work in his members to bear fruit for death.

We can therefore see something very similar to the (much clearer) Johannine analysis above: sin is universal, and easily forgiven through faith in the God who raised Jesus from the dead. So the blind man (and thus blindness from the beginning) was easily cured. However, there is the complicating factor of the law, which appears to enable people to be just by knowing good and evil (the pharisees in John 9 who 'could see'). In fact, not only does the law not permit people to become just, but it locks them further into wrath, which is the judgmental attitude of those who think they have a superior knowledge, leading them to involvement in persecution and death, just as it had lead Paul himself. That is to say, rather than sin being overcome by the law, it is compounded by it, making sin even more lethal. So the Johannine pharisees are driven deeper into blindness by their pretensions of sight. And of course, as in John, (7) the paradigm for the law being wrong is the death of Christ. Where for John the death of Christ revealed the structuring mechanism of sin at work in the authorities, in Paul it reveals the complicity of the law with sin, and thus, finally the caducity of the law. Paul explicitly says that "Christ is the end of the law that every one who has faith may be justified" (Rom. 10:4). He is the "end" of course in multiple senses, one of which for Paul is that the law achieved its purpose in leading to Christ's death, thus revealing definitively the true nature of sin whose accomplice it had been -- that is exactly what is said by 7:13. Having fulfilled its ambiguous purpose, the law is now at an end, now that righteousness is made available by faith in Christ.

At a later stage I will examine the complex Pauline understanding of the relationship between desire, law and sin. Here it is sufficient to indicate that he, like John, considers that the law makes righteousness (sight) more rather than less difficult.

Finally, of course, Paul is famously aware that the universal sinfulness that he is describing is historically original and related to death (5:12). Sin and death are ascribed to Adam. Death was not invented by the law, because sin-related death reigned from Adam to Moses, even though the people between the two were ignorant of the law. Furthermore, the consequences of the universal failed mind that is at the center of our idolatric state is clearly the complexes of envious desire that lead to murder. That is to say, the same elements appear in the Pauline argument as in the Johannine story. The anthropological elements are rather less developed in Paul than in John. Paul uses complex rabbinical arguments instead, and this accounts for much of our difficulty in understanding him. He uses Adam's transgression rather than the original murder to illustrate his theme, because it enables him to relate the primary prohibition (Gen. 2:15-17) with the Mosaic Law, and therefore fits in with his discussion of the caducity of the law. The Adam story also enables him to relate sinful desire with the law (7:7-11), which is vital if he is to maintain the goodness of the Law, and yet show how it has become part of a perverted world order.

Having seen therefore that the apostolic witness bears witness to the double revelation that I have described, of the new vision of God, and a new clarity concerning the universality of sin, now capable of forgiveness it would be interesting to see the way in which this redefinition of sin in terms of that which can be forgiven is the culmination of an anthropological development from the Old Testament.


1. But see Jn 3:36 ! It is clear from the context, however, that this is an anthropological reality, not a theological one. It is less immediately clear that the same is true of the Pauline uses of wrath (though it is no less true).

2. I am much indebted for the treatment that follows to R. Hamerton-Kelly Sacred Violence (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1992) especially chapter 4, "Sacred Violence and Original Sin," 88 - 119.

3. As Hamerton-Kelly indicates, Sacred Violence, 101

4. This word is vital and recurrent in all the Gospels, where much is made of the irony of God handing over Jesus, Judas handing over Jesus, and Jesus handing over himself.

5. In his detailed study of the use of Isaiah 53 in the N.T., Le Christ est mort pour tous (Paris: Cerf 1993), P. Ternant shows that the texts we have in the N.T. admit of no interpretation of the death of Jesus in terms of satisfactory substitution.

6. See Hamerton-Kelly, Sacred Violence, 120-29, 146-50.

7. See the ironic juxtaposition of John 18:31 and 19:7.