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The Apostle Paul “Winged It” According To Christian N.T. Scholar, Peter Enns, author of The Sin of Certainty (Scrivenings: Paul Fanaticus Extremis Series)

See previous parts of this series here.

According to Christian New Testament scholar, Peter Enns:

The Apostle Paul ‘Winged It’ According To Christian N.T. Scholar

As I read Romans, I donʼt walk away thinking, “My, what a carefully planned out letter.” I think more, “Paul is winging it.” I know that might not seem very reverent, especially since Romans is often thought of as the primo example of Paul at his difficult yet nevertheless logically consistent best, where he once and for all lays out the basics of the gospel for all to hear and for all time… Romans reads more like Paul is in creative-problem-solving mode for Roman Christians facing a pressing problem (how Jews and Gentiles make up one people of God)…

Hereʼs what I mean. Look at how Paul uses the Old Testament, which he does throughout the letter. It doesnʼt take long before you get the impression that Paul is riffing, For example:

Abraham was declared righteous by faith (Genesis 15) before the command to circumcision (Genesis 17) and long before the Law of Moses. Hence, according to Paul, Abraham models that itʼs always been about faith and not law keeping as the mark of being the true people of God (Romans 4). This is somewhat of a forced, selective, reading of the Abraham story (especially as he is hailed as a law keeper before Moses in Genesis 26:4-5).

Paul claims that, all along, Gentiles have been called by God right alongside of Jews and supports that claim by a string of Old Testament citations (Romans 9:25-29). But those passages (from Hosea and Isaiah) are not referring to Gentile inclusion but the restoration of repentant Israel.

To support his claim that Christ is the ‘end’ (better ‘culmination’ or ‘completion’) of the law, Paul pits two passages from Torah against each other. Leviticus 18:5, which speaks of obedience to Torah, is a ‘righteousness that comes from the law.’ But the ‘righteousness that comes by faith’ is about Christ, which Paul sees in Deuteronomy 30:11-14 (Romans 10:4-13). The problem is that the passage in Deuteronomy is about as strong a language as one can find about the dire consequences for not keeping the Law of Moses. Paul bypasses the clear meaning of that text—Torah obedience—in favor of a creative Christ-centered reading that marginalizes Torah obedience.

In Romans 11:26-27, Paul cites Isaiah 59:20-21 but changes one crucial word to allow him to make his theological point. In context, Isaiah speaks of God (the Deliverer) coming to Zion (Israel) to deliver them from Babylonian captivity. Paul, however, uses this passage to speak of a different kind of deliverance that will come not to Zion but out of Zion—meaning (I think) that the deliverance of both Jews and Gentiles originates with a Jewish Jesus.

We could go on.

Paul appeals to the Old Testament in order to support what is hardly an obvious notion to Jews at the time: that Jesus, a crucified and risen son of a working-class family, is the long-hoped for Jewish messiah and that Gentiles as Gentiles are full and equal partners along with Jews in this messianic age—meaning the only requirement is faith/trust in Jesus and not ‘zeal’ for Torah (Romans 10:2-4).

Preaching that message is one thing. Saying, as Paul does relentlessly in Romans, that that message is already encoded into the Old Testament (provided one reads against the grain and/or beneath the surface) is something else altogether. Hence, Paulʼs necessarily creative handling of Israelʼs scriptures and traditions.

Making this sort of argument raised an even deeper problem: If encoded in the Old Testament is the gospel of Jesus—where Torah is decentered and the door is flung open to the Gentiles without their needing to uphold things like circumcision and dietary laws (both of which are commanded in the Old Testament)—then whatʼs so special about being a Jew?

Paulʼs passionate argument for Jesus is too good: it puts Jesus in the place of Torah as central to Godʼs plan, thus calling into question the central place Torah plays in Israelʼs scriptures and traditions. He has painted himself into a corner that he knows he has to get out of, especially if he hopes to keep his Jewish audience on board. Two examples:

In chapters 1-2, Paul passionately levels the playing field between Jews and Gentiles, that neither has the upper hand. In fact “real circumcision is a matter of the heart—it is spiritual and not literal” (Romans 2:29). With this kind of rhetoric, Paul is right to voice an anticipated question (3:1): “Then what advantage has the Jew? Or what is the value of circumcision? Much, in every way.” His answer (3:2) seems inadequate for truly answering the objection: “For in the first place, the Jews were entrusted with the oracles of God [Torah].” OK, they have the Bible. Anything else? There is no “in the second and third place.” And then he flips back in verse 9 to say that Jews really arenʼt better off at all, since “both Jews and Greeks are under the power of sin.” Itʼs not really clear where Paul stands on the true advantage of Jews have now that Jesus is raised from the dead.

In chapter 6 Paul talks about the power of sin to which the unbeliever is enslaved, and from which one is freed by the gospel. In 7:1-7, however, Paul uses the same rhetoric to describe not sin but the Law of Moses—to which one is enslaved and from which we are “discharged” and given “new life of the Spirit” rather than being “slaves . . under the written code” (7:6). So it seems that sin and Law are two sides of the same coin for Paul, which is a shocking argument from a Jewish point of view. And so Paul anticipates this objection and asks yet another rhetorical question (7:7), “What then should we say? That the law is sin?” Paul answers, “By no means!” but commentators (at least the ones Iʼve read) see in the following verses (8-13) a rather unsatisfying attempt by Paul to extricate himself from he seems to have just done, namely equating law and sin, and thus potentially throwing the Old Testament under the bus. (It doesnʼt help Paulʼs case that earlier, in 5:20, he sums up the lawʼs value as revealing the depth of sin rather than being a solution.)

Paul has a few other such moments in the letter where he seems to be backpedaling. By the force of his excitement to preach the gospel, perhaps Paul ran ahead of himself.

Think about it. The more airtight Paul makes his argument (by citing the Old Testament) that it has been Godʼs plan all along to show no partiality (2:11; 3:21-31) to Jews, the more Jewish followers of Jesus might want to ask, “So, was all that back then about keeping the covenant just a big smokescreen? And what about all those Jews over the centuries who lived their lives according to Torah, some of whom were martyred—does that mean nothing?”

Paulʼs argument threatened to call into question the very faithfulness, justice, and righteousness of God. “If this is the kind of about-face God can pull, is this God trustworthy?” Which is to ask, “Is this God at all?”

Of course Enns “wings it” himself at the end of his post, ‘riffing’ up some excuses as to why Christians might still be able to view Paulʼs writings as divinely inspired, when it looks like yet another common case in the development of religions, called, “religious supersessionism,” where one religion steals and twists enough of a previous religion to claim they are its heir and successor; as Buddhism did to Hinduism; as Islam did to Judaism and Christianity; as rival schools of Islam, Sunni and Shia, did to each other; as Protestantism did to Catholicism; as later Protestant offshoots did to earlier versions of Protestantism; as Pentecostalism did to Protestantism; and as Mormonism, Jehovahʼs Witnesses and Seventh Day Adventism did to more widespread versions of Christianity.

C. S. Lewis said of Paul's writing,

“I cannot be the only reader who has wondered why God, having given him [St. Paul] so many gifts, withheld from him (what would seem so necessary for the first Christian theologian) that of lucidity and orderly exposition.”

Martin Hughes adds, “To be sure, in context, C. S. Lewis is saying that Paulʼs beauty is found in his imperfections—that if he had been more clear and straightforward, Christians might have a more difficult time seeing what an authentic Christian life looked like. But what he indicates, really, is that the Bible is made by a man—God chose to speak through a very human voice. It seems strange that one would consider this proof of God at all. If Paul was just speaking with his own human voice—and not a very good one at that—why should I listen to him?”

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