Election: Romans 9 – 11, Reading Paul, Part 1

Before we begin to study the text, we need to pause and reflect on how to read Paul. Paul is not easy. But I’ve learned a lot about Paul here lately, and so let me share what I’ve learned.

The Old Testament quotations

Paul quotes the Old Testament nearly every other verse. When Paul quotes the Old Testament or refers to some Old Testament event, he assumes his readers know exactly what he is talking about. And sometimes we do, and sometimes we don’t.

We, in fact, have a tendency to skip these passages, as we think the Old Testament has been repealed. But this means we’re treating part of what Paul wrote as repealed — which is dumb.

When Paul refers to the Old Testament, we need to actually turn to that passage. Sometimes it’s just for context. Sometimes Paul is actually intending to refer to the entire, for example, prophecy that he’s quoted a part of.

And in Romans 9 -11, Paul is arguing about God’s election — the movement of his hand through history — and the passages he quotes tell part of the story.

Second Temple Judaism

Thanks to E. P. Sanders, James Dunn, N. T. Wright, and others, we’re learning that the New Testament becomes much more clear when read in light of the then contemporary culture — which should be obvious. And it is — it’s just that, until now, very few scholars went to the trouble of actually reading the uninspired texts written between the Testaments and by Jewish contemporaries of the apostles to really understand the Jewish culture in which Paul wrote. And a lot of this material has been preserved.

This is not the place to do a detailed analysis. Let me offer a very incomplete summary.

Salvation through Faith

Jews were not Pelagians. They did not seek to earn salvation by their works. They perfectly well knew they had to rely on grace through faith to be saved.

However, many Jews wished to show themselves to be God’s people through certain distinctives, particularly circumcision, the rejection of meat sacrificed to idols (and any other form of idolatry), and the celebration of Jewish holidays. A Stoic might be a moral man, and a follower of Plato might believe in a single god, but only a Jew displayed these peculiar marks.

There’s much more, and a great place to get into this very valuable study is What Saint Paul Really Said: Was Paul of Tarsus the Real Founder of Christianity?, by N. T. Wright.

I realize that seems like crazy talk, and many will be highly skeptical. But it’s demonstrably true, and this forces a rethinking of the entire Reformation conversation about what Paul is saying. It’s not so much that Paul doesn’t teach salvation by grace through faith (he certainly does!) — but what is he teaching against?

Jews and Gentiles

Most of Paul’s writings deal with the relationship of Jews and Gentiles. We tend to ignore the question, as we see it as irrelevant today (any Jewish Churches of Christ in your hometown?) As a result, we skip passages in our study that are critical to understanding Paul’s thought. You can’t skip pieces and expect to understand the rest. We’re not that smart. At least, I’m not.

Christianity began within Judaism. Paul was the apostle to the Gentiles, but if you read Acts, you’ll see that he generally began his work among Jews and “God fearers,” that is, Gentiles who’d already come to believe in the God of Abraham, even if not proselytes.

Now imagine a congregation that meets in a Jewish synagogue made up largely of Jews and converts to Judaism or near-converts to Judaism. Paul then converts some Gentiles, with clean-shaven faces, togas, and a taste for non-kosher food — and no circumcision. It would have been very tempting for some old Jew to lean over and say to the Gentile, “Don’t you think you’d be more comfortable at the Gentile congregation down the road?” (This is what many a white Church of Christ has said to its black converts.)

Or a well-intentioned Jewish Christian might say, “You know, things would go much easier if you were to be circumcised … you know, just to get along. Don’t you think it’s right to honor the scruples of others? You see, we have some Jewish members here who grew up believing they should only eat with the circumcised, so it makes communion really painful for them to see you acting like a Greek.”

Of course, Paul tells us in Galatians that some Jews actually said that circumcision and honoring holy days was essential for a Christian. But even when the teaching was mere social pressure, in a small, struggling, new church, such pressures could easily divide a church and create a Gentile church and Jewish church.

Paul’s attitude was to permit none of this — and in no uncertain terms. He declared it wrong either to demand that the Gentiles conform to the scruples of the Jews or to separate into two churches.

Are you beginning to see the relevance? And yet we skip these passages.

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6 Responses

  1. Jay,

    You said: This is what many a white Church of Christ has said to its black converts.

    To be fair, I think that sentiment has been expressed both directions. I’ve known several newcomers to Miami who first visited predominantly black churches who were told they would probably be more comfortable over at the white congregation.

    Thanks,
    Brian B.

  2. I’ve read that one of the prominent 19th century Restoration Movement leaders (David Lipscomb, if I remember right) taught that it is sin to attend any congregation other than the nearest one teaching sound doctrine. In other words, we generally shouldn’t have a choice in the matter.

    Regardless of who said it, it makes a scary amount of sense when you think about it. How godly are our reasons for doing otherwise? I suppose there are exceptions. But many of us would have a hard time coming up with a convincing reason for our choices.

  3. While most of the time we choose churches for the way it serves us (“us” meaning “me”, of course), I can actually vouch for another scenario. In my latest move (http://dublinstory.wordpress.com), God picked the church for us before we moved. He showed me the place, and I went there, visiting no other churches on the way, because this is the one He picked. It is even a different denomination than my upbringing (CofC) and different than the type of church I just moved from (non-denom).

    There are elements about it that aren’t my favorite, but He talks to me about those, too. The second week we visited, He told me to see the church as a recipe – don’t judge it until all the ingredients have been mixed, the batter has been baked, and you’ve actually tasted it. And since He’s just now adding my family, there is some mixing that has to be done next.

    “God told me to go there” is why I pass by three other churches – in a town of 3800 – to go there. I would encourage others to do the same.

    In another post a few months ago, I also gave the advice of going where Jesus is. If you don’t know what church to go to, and God didn’t pick one for you, I still stand by that idea: find out where Jesus is active, and go there. That would be the church that is known for helping the helpless, the hurting, etc. One shouldn’t have to ask around town too much to find it.

  4. Alan,

    Lipscomb indeed wrote that, considering it deep sin to ride past one church to attend another. And this is truly the biblical pattern. We seem to prefer to unite around having our views affirmed by a preacher who teaches what we already believe rather than uniting by working hard to bridge the gulfs that divide us.

  5. There are 10 churches of Christ within 15 minutes from our house. It just so happens that the meeting house nearest to our house is the one where the best saints meet. Isn’t it great . . . I don’t have to worry about whether I’m driving too far. I am going to sleep so well tonight. What a relief.

  6. David, my congregation is the closest as well. Whew!

    Thanks for prompting me to be clear on one point: although what we do violates the First Century pattern, the cure requires much more than attending the nearest Church of Christ! We can’t get to the proper end by that route.

    Nor is the First Century pattern to be taken as holy writ. Just because we can read between the lines and discern a certain pattern of conduct hardly means that we’ve been commanded to do the same by our inferences. God makes the important things quite plain. After all, the doctrine that’s between the lines is doctrine that hasn’t been written.

    The short answer is: until the Churches of Christ begin teaching and living the grace of God, unity and cooperation can’t happen. But if we ever sort this grace thing out … if we ever truly believe it in our bones … then everything will change.

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