“The word is nigh to thee, even in thy mouth, and in thy heart: that is, the word of faith, which we preach; That if thou shalt confess with thy mouth the Lord Jesus, and shalt believe in thine heart that God hath raised him from the dead, thou shalt be saved. For with the heart man believeth unto righteousness; and with the mouth confession is made unto salvation. For the scripture saith, Whosoever believeth on him shall not be ashamed. For there is no difference between the Jew and the Greek: for the same Lord over all is rich unto all who call upon him. For whosoever shall call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.” Romans 10:8-13
North America’s “Thomas Aquinas,” Bernard Lonergan had a sense of humor and perspective that he probably acquired from his family. His great grandfather was a saloonkeeper in the village of Buckingham on the Ottawa River. His father was away most of the time because he was an engineer and surveyor who planned the railways of the Northwest Territories of Canada. His mother was the foundation of their home that included her spinster sister as well as Bernard and his two brothers. His mother was a pious Roman Catholic who said her prayers and the rosary three times a day. Bernard said his prayers too, but he also learned how to play poker and taught his two younger brothers how to play and took all their money and only gave it back when they threatened to tell their mother. They say that when he taught theology at the Gregorian in Rome they had problems finding a lecture hall sufficiently large to hold the overflow of hundreds of seminarians that would happily stand to hear the teacher. Many of his books were actually study notes that he prepared for his students – all originally written in Latin and then later on translated. Bernard loved the Ottawa Senators, canoeing, and Goldie Hawn’s movies. He was a great theologian whose true vocation was to teach us how to appropriate our own rational and responsible human understanding. He had a great sense of humor and perspective and once he wrote these words: “Centuries are required to change mentalities… you don’t get a change in mentality by introducing a few fads.” Lonergan had little time for quick fixes, laziness or dabblers and dilettantes. Theology, prayer, the Church’s labor, the parishioner’s diligence is life long work meant for every Christian who sticks with it till death us do part for a little while. Lonergan also meant that not only individuals, but communities, movements, nations of people, even periods of the world are formed by a mentality, an attitude toward life, an account of what is true and how it is known, as well as an assessment of what is valuable and what is worth one’s self-sacrificing attention and time.
I want to apply that observation to our understanding of Scripture and our life together in the Church and especially to our study of Romans, which by the way reached its one-year mark last month. There are mentalities, attitudes toward life, habits of thought and action that enrich and develop our understanding of the Scriptures, that led us to consecrate our common life as well as to enter into common and fruitful pursuits for Christ and his Kingdom. But there are also mistakes, oversights, biases of the mind, and blind spots that degrade our understanding of the Scriptures and that misdirect our common life toward fruitless and sometimes false pursuits. And just as Lonergan said change in man’s mentality takes centuries and does not come “by introducing a few fads,” I would add that systemic, collective change of mentality does not come by preaching a few sermons, writing a few articles or publishing a few books. But when the preacher, the teacher, the writer, the reader, and the parishioner are authentically doing the hard work their individual jobs require, as well as saying their prayers, and participating in the common life of the Body of Christ – what we get is slow but authentic change of mentality, conversion and a shift in the horizon of the preacher, the teacher, the writer, the reader and the parishioner. I have been here for 23 years and most of my studies, besides keeping up with Lonergan, have been focused on understanding the Gospel of John and St. Paul. This series from Romans has helped me pull together and understand more than one personal conversion and horizon shift since graduating from Duke and being ordained to the priesthood. I bring this up because what I have preached from Romans over the last year is not what I would have preached 25 years ago and on some points it is not even compatible. Why? Because I have changed. This is something that I have discovered and I do not mean this as a pietism: the texts of Bible require us to change in order to understand their meaning. Why? Simply put, the Scriptures of the Church are always beyond the horizon of the interpreter, the preacher and his parishioners.
Now no one is comfortable with the space between experience and understanding, the time between reading a text and grasping the meaning of the text. And it is especially uncomfortable if some cherished belief or habit is being cross-examined by the scriptural text. What people tend to do is eliminate their angst by applying an overarching interpretive principle that will make sense out of the texts even if it requires a little squeezing. Let me provide you with an example of squeezing the text from the contemporary university. In the academy some folk will read a text from a Marxist point-of-view or a feminist point-of-view and one may spend their whole life finding exactly what they are looking for because that is the way they read a text and their resistance to reading the text any other way becomes a life-long vocation. In that case their angst may have more to do with gaining tenure than getting their reading right and that is no small matter. But a similar thing happens within the Church when it comes to reading the Bible. For example, interpreters frequently find narratives or concepts in Romans that are simply not in text, but we are so used to these narratives that we seldom if ever question them. What I have been preaching from Romans does not square with the more familiar and comfortable narratives frequently imposed on Romans, narratives that most of us grew up on and I will address three of those narratives.
First and probably foremost is Martin Luther’s very popular but mistaken understanding of justification by faith alone. It is the dominant theme of most American Protestant Evangelicalism:
“Justification is an act of God’s free grace, wherein he pardoneth all our sins and accepteth us as righteous in his sight only for the righteousness of Christ imputed to us and received by faith alone.”
What happens next is that this view of justification by faith alone is appropriated as the interpretative key that unlocks the mysteries of Holy Scripture. An anchor that is too heavy for its boat will drag the boat under water and the boat disappears from sight. When the popular but mistaken belief in justification by faith alone is taken as the key to Scripture it is given too much weight and it will have an analogous effect upon the text that an ill-fitted anchor would have upon a boat: it drags the text down and it becomes invisible. If one forces a text to say what one want it to say, the text might as well be invisible. But if one cuts loose of the anchor – if one reverses the procedure, setting Luther’s context aside and setting the American Evangelical context aside – if one reverses that procedure and permits Paul’s texts to speak from within their own context, in Israel’s context, in Jesus’ context, in Paul’s unconverted and converted context, what one discovers will sound like a disconnect and probably even dangerous to folk committed to justification by faith alone. One discovers in Romans 9-11 a radical reinterpretation of election, an embarrassing as well as a potentially offensive reappraisal of Israel; one will discover that what Paul had in mind when he wrote about God’s righteousness and justification is not what Luther thought at all. Paul did not recommend Abraham as a mere example of faith for us to follow, but more profoundly the future of the world and our salvation is in the man Abraham. One will also confront the strange notion that Jesus’ life’s work was to completed, reinvigorated, and bring to final fruition the covenant God made with Abraham – Jesus is Abraham’s Elect Seed and his election, which is what election is all about, was perfected on the bloody cross of Calvary. Instead of a neat legal transaction, I discover the peculiarity that my justification means being “in Abraham” and being “in Christ,” which is my “participation” in Abraham through my “participation” in Jesus the Messiah. We gentiles are branches broken from a wild olive tree and yet grafted into the Olive Tree of Israel which enables us to feed upon the richness and fat of Abraham – and that mighty grace is accomplished by being grafted into the Elect Seed Jesus Christ through holy baptism. It all turns out to be strangely and for some folk uncomfortably ecclesiastical – but that is exactly where the texts lead us – to the Church, the Ark of Safety, our shelter from the storm.
A second narrative comes from a “post-holocaust” theology and attitude that has arisen since the end of World War II when the horrors of Nazism were finally revealed to the world. There has been an understandable and appropriate sensitivity toward the way we talk about Israel and how Christians ought to relate to Jewish people and in particular the State of Israel. But this mentality has also influenced the way some theologians and scholars have read the Bible and especially the New Testament and it has produced some pretzel-like contortions in interpreting St. Paul’s epistles that have frequently led to error. For example many of these well-meaning folk now believe and teach that God has two covenants, the covenant with Jesus that is for the Gentile and the covenant with Abraham that is for Jews and they tend to be opposed to Jews becoming Christians. Many of these folk have taught that in the past the Church has seen herself as replacing Israel in such a manner that Christ has superseded Abraham and the promises. Those who are influenced by this new awareness will appreciate the attention we pay to Judaism, but they will not be very happy with what St. Paul has to say in Romans and Galatians which is not that the Church has replaced Israel, but rather the Church is the Israel of God, his chosen people, his royal priesthood by virtue of the faith of Jesus Christ. St. Paul is abundantly clear that there is only one covenant and that is the one God made with Abraham and fulfilled in Jesus and his Church.
A third narrative today is grounded in the great influence of dispensationalism, which has had a remarkable impact upon the popular culture and politics of our nation. Dispensationalism started in the little group called the Plymouth Brethren and a preacher named John Darby and later on a man named Cyrus Schofield popularized it through the well-known Schofield Reference Bible that is full of notes on important passages of scripture that they thought supported their teaching. Some of the most esteemed and influential television preachers yesterday and today are dispensationalists who think that many of the promise made to Israel in the Old Testament were not fulfilled in the days of our Lord and those promises are yet to be fulfilled and so they are always looking for signs of our Lord’s second coming. They frequently try to interpret world events that touch upon the State of Israel and the Middle East as biblical prophecy being fulfilled right before our eyes on cable news.
The establishment of the State of Israel in 1948, which dispensationalists interpret as the return of the exiled Jew to the Promised Land, the Six Days War, the rebuilding of the Temple and especially our nation’s support of Israel as a test of our national rightness with God – they take as signs of the “End-Times.” And they teach that Paul prophesied much of that in that Romans 9-11 and what is not covered there is covered in some of his other epistles and in the Revelation of St. John the Divine. An American politician who lived on a kibbutz in Israel gave an interview to an influential magazine a few years back and by way of background the reporter wrote that Israel is, “a state whose creation many American evangelicals believe is prophesized in the Bible.” The journalist went on to report that St. Paul had said that very thing in his epistle to the Romans. But Paul wrote absolutely nothing of the sort and in particular in Romans 9-11 there is nothing about the Promised Land. And there is not a word about reclaiming the land, rebuilding the Temple, nor is there a hint that the nation that lends political support to the State of Israel will be showered with God’s blessings. Of course one of the dangers in pointing out the problems with the post-holocaust theology and dispensationalism is that one might be taken to be anti-Jewish. And the only way to counter such accusations is to stay in the texts because there is absolutely nothing anti-Jewish about Jesus the Messiah or St. Paul.
God pledged his troth to Abraham with the intent that all the families of the earth may know and love God through Abraham’s family. According to Paul anyone in the world may have and hold, may love and cherish God and his promises when they come to know Jesus, the Messiah of Israel of God and are baptized – from that day forward and forever.
“That if thou shalt confess with thy mouth the Lord Jesus, and shalt believe in thine heart that God hath raised him from the dead, thou shalt be saved.”