Paul’s Letter to the Romans: A Toxic Brew of Bad Theology
A number of years ago, in conversation with a Christian friend, I mentioned Paul’s Letter to the Romans. “I don’t know it,” she responded. I suppose I shouldn’t have been all that surprised, since the Letter to the Romans is not an easy part of the Bible to get through and understand—which is why very few Christians even give it a try.
I do not need to rebut or even try to refute this. I was raised in a Christian household and been in church all my life and I have been hearing, reading, studying and digesting the Epistle to the Romans my whole life. I do recognize that this isn't the same for all Christians, but it still amazes me that some people have not read it. It is sad. We, as Christians, need to do better.
The gospels have far more appeal and get a lot more traffic. But still, such ignorance of basic Bible material surely isn’t a good thing for believers who aspire to be—or even assume they are—Bible-based Christians.
Agreed. But this isn't true of all Christians that I know. If this is true about all the Christians that you know I would have to suggest you should get out more and meet more people.
No matter the indifference of laypeople to the Letter to the Romans, it is a source of bewilderment to secular thinkers that Christian theologians have been obsessed—and I do mean utterly obsessed—with the Letter to the Romans, for centuries. Those of the Protectant [sic] persuasion might be aware that Martin Luther urged Christians to memorize it, but I suspect that ordinary folks in the pews would be dumbfounded to learn that every syllable, word and verse of Romans—every jot and title—has been scrutinized and analyzed, over-analyzed, super-analyzed, painstakingly, exhaustively, by Christian theologians. They tease out, squeeze out the tiniest bits of revelation that might have sparked from Paul’s mind onto the scroll…as if the fate of the Cosmos were hanging in the balance. But I guess, of course, for those in the Christian cult, that’s what Romans is about.
I think that this is where the faceplant starts. I don't think its weird at all to scrutinize Romans or any of the Bible. If it is truly the word of God it would be stupid not to look at it carefully. If you don't look at it carefully, how would you be able to determine if it is God's word or not? That is why I'm interested in going through Romans with the proverbial fine-toothed comb. The fate of the universe does "hang in the balance". If Paul was a liar or insane then he and the other Apostles were wrong. Jesus was wrong and Christianity is a waste of time. It would be sheer stupidity to be sure. This is not a matter of faith (as defined by John Loftus and many other wrong Atheist as being "believing despite and instead of evidence). The point here: Is the Bible true in general and Romans in particular? The writer of this article and Atheists in general would argue that the Bible is not true. It falls to them to demonstrate something the Bible is wrong about. David Madison in this case has to show Paul got something wrong is some way and not merely just assert that Paul was wrong. He has to show the toxicity and badness of Paul's theology. Let's examine the article to see how he does. Spoiler: a major faceplant.
Do I exaggerate about the ‘utter obsession’? Well, Ben Witherington’s 400-page analysis of Romans (Paul's Letter to the Romans: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary, 2004) includes an 18-page bibliography of scholarly works on Paul and Romans, a list he says that “could go on for miles.” In 1996, evangelical scholar Douglas Moo published a 1,000-page commentary on Romans (The Epistle to the Romans), one of a series, the New International Commentary on the New Testament, “loyal to the Scriptures as the infallible Word of God.” A thousand pages on the sixteen chapters of Romans? The legions of Christian scholars, who can’t get enough of this dense patch of scripture, assume that scholar and theologian C. H. Dodd, got it right when he declared in 1939 that Romans is “the first great work of Christian theology.”
Another great paragraph full of nothing to disagree with.
But, of course, it’s not. Because Paul was a crank. In my book I argue that he was a ‘delusional cult fanatic’—but ‘crank’ is good shorthand. He was the prototype for Christian crazies who have shown up repeatedly in the centuries of the Christian era.
Almost every great thinker throughout history was considered a "crank" at best by his or her detractors. Do you know what separates a "crank" from a "genius"? The genius is right about the thing(s) so many others thinks they are wrong about, Can Madison prove the theology that Paul wrote down in Romans was wrong?
How so? I mean, really, how can anyone take this guy seriously?
So...Madison thinks that Paul's ideas should not be taken seriously. Why not?
(1) Paul assured one of his congregations that, when the Lord came back, their dead relatives would pop out of their graves to meet Jesus in the clouds—with musical accompaniment, no less (I Thess. 4:16-18).
Just because Madison considers the rapture ridiculous does not mean that it's not going to happen. Where's the evidence and argument that Paul is wrong. This is just an assertion.
(2) Paul scolded Christians for taking one another to court; didn’t they know they were qualified to settle their disputes? Why? Because one day soon they would be judging angels—after Jesus’ return (I Corinthians 6:3).
Use context much?will be judging angels. Also because we should be treating one another with love and esteeming each other higher than ourselves (Philippians 2:3) we should be able to settle our disputes without going to court. True that most Christians have not lived up to this but it is what we are supposed to do. Unbelievers should not not hold the failure of Christians against the Bible. If you think you can do better, come show us how to do it.
(3) He advised married Christian men to act as if they no longer had wives, because “the appointed time has grown short”—i.e., Jesus would arrive soon (I Corinthians 7:29); this matches his advice in Romans 13:14: “…put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh in regard to its lusts.”
That's not really true. Why did Madison fail to refer to the whole passage. Read the whole Chapter and you will see the Paul never said to married men to live like they no longer had wives. This contradicts verses 10 and 11.
1To the married I give this command (not I, but the Lord): A wife must not separate from her husband. But if she does, she must remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband. And a husband must not divorce his wife.If you are going to bad-mouth Paul I expect something way more factual.
(4) Paul had no interest in good government (or in art, culture or education, or that matter).He assured his readers—this is in Romans 13—that all leaders are in power because God put them there.
No Paul told his readers to obey the laws of the land because God put the leaders in charge. How is this crazy. Is Madison and anarchist? Paul most definitely was not. Paul was reminding believers that our trust - our faith - is in God and not any particular government. Go back and read Romans 13.
(5) He embraced a magic formula for eternal life that sounds straight out of Hogwarts: “…if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” (Romans 10:9). This is just a start, but I rest my case: Paul was a Jesus groupie and nothing else.
If putting all my egg into Jesus' basket, like Paul did, makes me a "Jesus groupie" I'll gladly represent that remark. If Jesus, Paul, and all the believers from Adam to today are right, there is no other sane response. It's not magic. If one thinks Paul just made up Romans 10:9 out of no where then one has misunderstood the whole book of Romans. Go back ans start with Chapter one. You will not understand Romans 10 if you did not understand Chapters 1-9
Randel Helms (Gospels Fictions, The Bible Against Itself) has said that the Bible is self-destructive artifact, and the Letter to the Romans is Exhibit A in making the case that this is so. It has land mines in almost every chapter. Christians can see theology exploding in their faces if they venture to step through these chapters, unaccompanied by apologists.
More assumptions. The thing about the book of Romans is that it is not a simple picture book. It has deep theology and philosophy and requires much study. It's not a Twilight novel.
During the coming weeks—spilling over into January, I suspect—I will offer a few reflections on each of the sixteen chapters in Romans. I will make the case that this over-adored epistle is indeed a
toxic brew of bad theology.
Oh goody - more entertaining faceplants to read!
Ben Witherington, by the way, undermines any confidence that Romans is revelation, when he warns his readers on page one of his 400-page work, “…the goal of understanding this formidable discourse is not reached for a considerable period of time.” So God planned it that way?
How does the fact that it took a lot of time to understand Romans (and still learning from it) undermines the letter as being revelation from God. Everyone is growing in different rates and I know I am still learning from Romans and I have read it multiple times.God did plan it that way. Recall that Christianity is a relationship with God. Relationships grow and we learn more and more. God does not grow because he does not have to. We do.
Why would we have to work so hard to grasp revealed information? Did you get my hint of ridicule when I mentioned Douglas Moo’s huge tome above? Yes, I am baffled by his efforts. Lest I be accused of anti-intellectualism, however, in scoffing at a 1,000-page book on Romans, let me say that, of course, academicians who specialize in antiquities are justified in pursuing their passions. Our heritage is enriched because there are countless weighty tomes about the works of Solon and Homer, about the hieroglyphed walls in Egypt and the pornographic murals in Pompeii. The authors were motivated to understand human genius and creativity, to increase our quotient of enlightenment. But the motivation for obsessive study of Paul is to figure out a god. The scholars who do this are on a holy mission.
It makes sense that God tells us to study. Why would it be easy? We can only do it with God's help.Why would we think our finite minds could easily and quickly comprehend the infinitude of God? I'd say it is like putting the pacific ocean into a thimble. Not going to happen.
Sadly—can’t they admit it?—Paul was not channeling a god in his hallucinations. He was an obsessive-compulsive mediocre thinker and bad theologian.
I'd like to see Madison prove that.
He churned out reams of theobabble, which, by an accident of history, were elevated to the status of scripture. The academicians who study Paul are determined to distill the essence of God’s will, to discover the divine mind. They are on fool’s errand.
Where's the beef? Madison at this points makes a lot of assumptions without no evidence to prove them.
Their pursuit is as worthwhile as studying the minutia of old letters written by medieval astrologers or alchemists. I am not anti-intellectual; I just have so little patience with the faith-blinded assumption that digging through this ancient text will yield data about a god. When scholars also happen to be ordained ministers, it’s hard to overcome the faith-blindness.
I'd agree with Madison if the book of Romans did not tell us anything about God and his reconciliation of humanity from sin and death but it does.
No, we don’t have to believe C.H. Dodd’s glowing assessment: “…this great epistle, into which [Paul] has packed the ripe fruits of many years of thought and work, of preaching, controversy, and the cure of souls, of trial, suffering, and spiritual experience.” The Letter to the Romans deserves to be at the bottom of the scrapheap of history. Paul is an embarrassment.
Madison indeed does not need to agree with Dodd but if he cannot demonstrate that Paul was wrong then this series is just a faceplant and an embarrassment.
David Madison was in the Methodist ministry in Massachusetts for nine years. He has a PhD in Biblical Studies from Boston University, and is the author of Ten Tough Problems in Christian Thought and Belief: a Minister-Turned-Atheist Shows Why You Should Ditch the Faith (Tellectual Press).