Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Original Sin, Apostle Paul, and the Dignity of Difference

Tony Jones has started a series of blog posts about the doctrine of "original sin." These posts explore and deconstruct the doctrine in helpful ways. And they have inspired a diversity of comments in reply.

In his first post, "Original Sin: Jesus' Ambivalence," Jones points out that "Jesus is not recorded in the gospels as saying anything that can be construed as particularly supportive of the doctrine of Original Sin." True enough. Jesus never mentions it. Original sin just doesn't seem important to Jesus. The reality of sin is an important topic for Jesus, but not the idea of original sin. In response to this post, Jones got many replies that brought up Paul's theology of the inherited nature of sin, especially in Romans 5. Jones turns to that topic next.

In "Original Sin, Romans 5, and the Heart of the Issue" Jones points out: "It's in this chapter that Paul writes most specifically about the inherited nature of sin, and it is from this passage that the two most articulate proponents of inherited guilt (Augustine) and the total depravity of humankind (Calvin) get their material." Again, this is true. In fact, Augustine (the guy who developed the idea of original sin) converted to Christianity after reading Romans. And many people where quick to point out Paul's theology in order to defend the doctrine of original sin. But other people challenged Paul's theology. So in the next post, Jones explores what we do if we disagree with Paul.

In Jones' post, "Was Paul Wrong?," he asks the following question: "If you, through an honest and thoroughgoing process of study and discernment, come to decide that the Apostle Paul was wrong about something in his writings, have you forsaken your claim to be an orthodox Christian?" This question inspired me to reply.

My simple answer is that Paul was right and we have much to learn from his letter to the Romans. But this answer needs to be expanded. The devil is in the details. Hm. That doesn't seem like an appropriate phrase for this kind of post. So let me coin a new phrase: The Spirit is in the nuance! So what follows is the nuance of my answer.

Context is important when reading Paul's letter. He wrote "Romans" to the emerging church in Rome. Most of the Romans were called "the strong," otherwise known as Gentile Christians. They were Christians who didn't follow Torah and kosher. They were former pagans who didn't have that in their religious background. There was also a minority group in Rome called "the weak," who were Christian Jews. They were Christians who did follow Torah and kosher. They were Jewish so this was in their religious background. So, in his letter to the Romans, Paul seeks to unite these two different Christian groups.

First, Paul unites both groups as sinners. He states that pagans sin through idolatry (1:23) and Jews sin through hypocracy (2:21-23). To make the point of common sinfulness clear, Paul goes on to say, "there is no distinction, since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God" (3:22-23). In sin, there is neither Greek (1:18-31) nor Jew (2:21-24)! But Paul isn't just a "Debbie Downer." He also unites the two groups of Christians under a more pleasant alternative.

Second, Paul unites both groups as freed sinners. All who have faith are justified through Christ (3:21-26). Christ enables all sinners to be justified and transformed into a new creation, "freed from sin and alive to God in Christ" (6:11). In Christ, there is neither Greek or Jew (Galatians 3:28). Both Christian groups are united as sinners given freedom through Christ.

In the 5th chapter of Romans, Paul develops his unifying theology even further. He suggests that Christ (as life) is replacing Adam (as death). The man of life is replacing the man of death for all people(5:15, 18). Clearly, Paul is still trying to unite Gentile Christians and Christian Jews under one theological program: sinners in need of justification. So, Paul says, "just as one man's trespass led to condemnation for all, so one man's act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all" (5:18). And with that, Christian Jews and Gentile Christians are united under Paul's theology of justification.

There is still some messy details that need to be cleaned up such as the debate over food (kosher vs. non-kosher). But, again, Paul manages to unite the two groups. This time he does it by suggesting that Christian Jews (the "weak") and Gentile Christians (the "strong") should respect their different meal practices (14:1-15:13) "for the good purpose of building up the neighbor" (15:2). Obviously, Paul isn't concerned with forcing the Gentile Christians into observing the Torah - or forcing the Christian Jews to stop observing it. Neither group is supposed to allow their different religious practices to "cause the ruin of one for whom Christ has died" (14:15). For Paul, the important thing is uniting the two groups of Christians into one "Body of Christ."

Paul's empathetic words and unifying theology for these groups is impressive. Perhaps it comes from the fact that he grew up in a Gentile city as a Jew. Paul understood both contexts. And for him the commonalities in Christ are more important than the differences in culture. For Paul, all Christians are united in Christ despite their differences (Galatians 2:7-9, 3:28).

So was Paul right? Yes! In the context of Rome, where he was dealing with the challenge of trying to unite the Christian Jews with the Gentile Christians, Paul did some amazing ecumenical ministry. There is much that Christians today can learn about finding the dignity in our differences from Paul's letter to the Romans.

At the same time, we need to remember that Paul wrote this letter for the believers in Rome. He had an audience and context in mind. He was trying to resolve conflict and develop appropriate theology for the emerging church in Rome. This is not Paul's letter to the Americans or Africans or Asians of the modern world. Paul's letter to the Romans needs to be honored, appreciated, and interpreted according to the context in which Paul wrote it.

Once we understand Paul's letter to the Romans in its original context, then we can begin to discuss what it may mean for us today. So, we should be challenged by the "spirit" (i.e. ideal of unity) of his letter, but not held captive to the "law" (i.e. specific ideas) of his letter. For example, today Christians aren't debating whether it's good to practice kosher or not. But we are debating different understandings of evangelism, communion, homosexuality, etc. So, following the "spirit" of Paul's letter, we find him challenging us to find our unity in Christ while honoring the dignity of our differences. It wasn't easy to do this in Rome and it's not easy today. But if we're going to take Scripture seriously, we need to rise to Paul's challenge.

Jonathan Sacks says it well: "We will learn to live with diversity once we understand the God-given, world-enhancing dignity of difference."

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