Facing Adam’s Choice

Painting by Rembrandt of Paul, one of the most...
Painting by Rembrandt of Paul, one of the most notable of early Christian missionaries, who called himself the “Apostle to the Gentiles.” Paul, a Hellenistic Jew, was very influential on the shift of Christianity to Gentile dominated movement. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This semester at the Episcopal Church at Yale we have been studying the book of Romans in our weekly bible study, which we wrapped up for the semester last night.

In this post I want to give a brief overview of what I think the argument of Romans is about and highlight a few ways in which our students have helped me to understand that more clearly.

After giving this overview, in a post coming up soon I am going to present my reading of a particularly controversial few chapters of the book of Romans dealing with the idea of divine election.  Stay tuned…

I think there are two major considerations that have to guide any reading of Romans.

The first is a phrase that appears in both the introduction and conclusion of the letter:  “the obedience of faith”  (1:5; 16:26).

The second is what Paul considers his defining mission, which is to be the Apostle to the Gentiles, the one commissioned by God to reach those beyond the bounds of Israel with the gospel.

With those two things in mind, I think Paul is making an extensive argument in Romans for the full and unconditional inclusion of the Gentiles in the church.  The way he makes that argument reveals, I think, Paul’s own wrestling with the relationship of the Jewish community to the new Christian movement.

So for instance, Paul begins his argument by rehearsing a standard Jewish polemic against the sinfulness and idolatry of Gentile culture (1:18ff).  The point of rehearsing this polemic, it turns out if we keep reading into chapter 2, is actually to set up a powerful critique of the Jewish critics of his ministry.

The standard Jewish critique claims that the Gentiles should know, merely from their knowledge of God’s creation, enough about God to shun idolatry, but they forsake this knowledge and thus their culture degrades into rampant sinfulness.

What Paul does in chapter 2 of Romans is turn this critique around on his critics:  If the Gentiles should know better merely from their knowledge of God’s creation, then what excuse can the people of Israel, who have in addition to that general knowledge the status and privilege of a covenant with God and the revelation of the law, possibly give for their own idolatry and sinfulness?

The law has not saved Israel, Paul concludes.  All have sinned and are in need of divine salvation.  And since the law cannot produce that salvation, the law must not be the marker of that salvation, either.

It is from this common, lowly starting point between both Jews and Gentiles that Paul then builds the argument for Gentile inclusion.

In essence, the argument is that through Christ a new people has been formed.  No longer is the boundary between people those with the law and those without the law but rather those united with Christ and those who are notThe markers of this new community are not circumcision and the keeping of the levitical dietary laws but baptism and a life of faith.

In making this argument, one of the things Paul has to do is explain how faith can serve as an alternative to the law.

He does this first by highlighting Abraham as the example of faith.  Though Kierkegaard and Paul will draw their inspiration from two different parts of the Abraham narrative, both come up with a very similar assessment:  Faith involves a willingness to take a radical leap into the unknown because God has asked us to.  In this way, faith is very much an act of obedience, not merely an intellectual assent:  “the obedience of faith.”

Now we get into areas of more nuanced interpretation.  There is some debate about whether Paul means to imply that the faith which leads to justification is Christ’s faith or our faith in Christ.  Based on some of the observations of our students, I’m going to argue that the answer might be both:

Paul illustrates the effects of faith with two analogies.  The first, found in chapter 5 of the letter, compares Christ with Adam.  Adam made a choice, a choice which Paul seems to imply forsook the path of faith and ultimately resulted in death.  Christ, Paul claims, takes a different path, and by doing so brings life to the many formerly enslaved to sin and death.  Here, the “obedience of faith” clearly seems to be the faith of Christ.

However, in the very next chapter Paul then uses the imagery of baptism to argue that those united with Christ must forsake their slavery to sin and becomes slaves to God.  A shift has occurred, now the faith under consideration is our own, our faith in Christ leads to our own “obedience of faith.”

One of our students noted that in several places following Paul’s comparison of Christ with Adam in chapter 5 imagery reminiscent of the Garden of Eden story shows up (for instance, 6:21-22, posing the option between death and eternal life just as Adam had in the choice to eat the forbidden fruit or enjoy the benefits of the tree of life).  I think this holds a significant part of the key to Paul’s argument.  The faith of Christ makes it possible for each of us to face Adam’s choice.  Then our own faith must guide our choice.

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10 thoughts on “Facing Adam’s Choice

  1. Interesting post, Alex. When I saw your posted on Romans, it brought back memories of the semester we slept through English Exegesis of Romans together :). As it seems there may be more to come from you on Romans, I would like to add my two cents for your consideration and maybe some critique/implications they may have on the text in future posts.

    I find your assessment of Paul’s argument strong, but I would also add that in writing Romans Paul likely had in mind getting a little moolah and other support (possibly a home base?) to help him get on to Spain, where he was also under obligation to preach the gospel (1:14). As such, much of what comes through in the letter can also be attributed to an explanation of “his” gospel, which is the same one promised before hand (1:2) and confirmed (1:4). This may have served as a support letter, thus a full(ish) articulation of Paul’s theology can be expected.

    Also, you have noted the inclusio in 1:5 and 16:26. As such, it is likely key to Paul’s argument as you have noted, but it will also point us to Paul’s thesis. Typically, one would expect Paul’s thesis to immediately follow the inclusio. In light of this, I tend to view 1:16-17 as the thesis as it is the conclusion Paul is working to in his greeting that begins just after the inclusio. As such, this must also guide any reading of the book.

    I gave a presentation in my last semester at SEBC arguing something similar for the “faith of Christ”. In the presentation, I argued that Paul did not intend for a subjective (faithfulness of Christ) or an objective (faith in Christ) by the genitive construction pistiV Cristou. Instead, Paul likely intended a very “full” phrase that would not be out of character for him. There are several studies that would imply that this sort of meaning is possible. Where these constructions are found, one sense would produce the other. In this case, it would be the faithfulness of Christ that produces our faith. This would also help us in understanding “from faith to faith” and the “revealing” of God’s righteousness in the gospel.

    To complicate matters, the “obedience of faith” is a difficult construction as well. It seems as though pistewV should be understood as a genitive of source with the gloss “the obedience that comes from (or is produced by) faith” rather than the “obedience that is faith”. This, coupled with my suggested understanding of “faith of Christ” would easily explain the shift in chapters five and six. The faithfulness of Christ (ch 5) produces a faith in us that should produce obedience in us as we have now been made slaves to righteousness.

    This reading would carry some implications, I think. I do think there may be an intentional connection to the garden story in chapter six, but I wouldn’t push that. Paul makes clear what he means by fruit in 6:21b (end, or result). Even if Paul is using garden imagery, I think there is one key difference. The emphasis is not on the choice, but on the fruit (the outcome). The fruit of the fruit (sorry, I couldn’t help myself) was death. Now, however, we are made alive. Instead of allowing us to face Adam’s choice, Christ’s faith flipped Adam’s choice on its head and made us (passive) alive. We are not simply made morally neutral, we are slaves to righteousness just like we were slaves to sin. We don’t have to choose the path to life, we have been freely given eternal life who’s fruit is right choosing, this is the “obedience of faith”.

    1. Thanks for the comment, Josh! Good to hear from you!

      I hadn’t ever considered the money angle before. That would be a really good explanation for why this letter is such a comprehensive presentation of Paul’s theology. Also for his overwhelming positivity toward the Romans… Very interesting. WIll have to think more about that.

      Of course you and I will have a disagreement about the issue of “choice.” Seem to remember us having a few debates about that while trying to keep a very large black dog from devouring everything in our apartment… I’ll be very interested to read your thoughts on my interpretation of chapters 9-11. Post should be up sometime later this week or early next.

      Hope you and Tiffany are well! And hope to see you guys sometime this decade… I feel very estranged from all my Southern friends since moving up here…

      1. We are doing well, Alex. I hope you are as well. I regret to inform you that I can’t remember a time when we would have ever debated theology…

        But on a serious note, I am looking forward to your coming post. I’m not sure that we would disagree as much about “choice” in the sense that one is made. It seems we may part ways as to the certainty of that choice due to a completed action for us (the Christ event) and in us (regeneration). Can’t wait to hear your thoughts on chapters 9-11.

        Now on a lighter note, do you see yourself in the Birmingham area around Christmas? Tif and I will be there for a week or so, so let me know if you will be there.

        1. I doubt I’ll be around Birmingham over Christmas… for work reasons I only get a week and a half down south for the holidays, not sure if there will be time in there for a road trip down to Alabama. Though I would love to make that happen… I’ll keep you guys posted, maybe I can work something out.

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