Maybe It’s Not the Worst Book in the Bible…
…But It’s a Contender
It would be such a relief—such a gift to the cause of compassionate religion—if Christians (especially of the paid-apologist variety, e.g., theologians, priests, ministers) could get over Paul’s Letter to the Romans..
I wonder if Madison thinks that all Christian clergy and apologists get paid for their work? If he does then he needs to meet more Christians. Also why should we chuck Romans under the bus? The only reason we should is if it is false and cannot hold up to scrutiny and does nothing to help us. Let's see if Madison can prove that the book of Romans is indeed false and unnecessary.
In my post on this blog 14 October 2016, I characterized this 16-chapter patch of scripture as a ‘toxic brew of bad theology,’ and stated my reasons for doing so. I also announced my plan to write analyses of each the 16 chapters, my atheist critique to be wrapped by January. I fell short of that goal: here I am starting in January. So, here goes, my take on Romans 1.
This post is not a faceplant because Madison failed to finish his chapter-by-chapter commentary by the end of January. It's a faceplant because it fails to demonstrate that Romans is a ‘toxic brew of bad theology,’ I am willing to agree that if he could have shown that Romans chapter one was as bad as he says it is we should throw out the whole letter and everything else Paul wrote. However, Madision is unsuccessful in making a single meaningful comment toward his thesis.
Scholars suspect that Paul’s opening paragraph was based on a liturgical formula current at the time (1:2-5), more or less summing up basic Christian thought, one key point being that Jesus Christ was a
descendant of King David. So I begin with a digression: There is little doubt that Paul belonged to the school of thought that Jesus had been conceived/born the same way everyone else is. We search in vain throughout his letters for any mention of the virgin birth (which would have canceled “descended from David”). Matthew’s famous proof text, Isaiah 7:14, “Behold a virgin shall conceive and bear a son” was the furthest thing from his mind. He would have laughed it off.
Paul is not writing his letter in a vacuum. We know he got a lot of his interpretations from what Christians believed at the time. He was not making stuff up so vs 2-5 in chapter one is of couse something that would be definitional of Christianity.
Paul, a bond-servant of Christ Jesus, [a]called as an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God, 2 which He promised beforehand through His prophets in the holy Scriptures, 3 concerning His Son, who was born of a [b]descendant of David according to the flesh, 4 who was declared the Son of God with power [c]by the resurrection from the dead, according to the [d]Spirit of holiness, Jesus Christ our Lord, 5 through whom we have received grace and apostleship [e]to bring about the obedience of faith among all the Gentiles for His name’s sake, - Romans 1:1-5 (NASB)It is of course not a given conclusion that Paul did not believe in the Virgin birth. Just because he did not talk about it directly, does not mean that he assumed or taught that Jesus was conceived through sexual intercourse just like everyone else. Instead Paul focused on Jesus pre-existing his own birth in his letters - just like the Apostle John also said in John 1:1. For example, look at Colossians 1:16-20
16 For [x]by Him all things were created, both in the heavens and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things have been created through Him and for Him. 17 He [y]is before all things, and in Him all things [z]hold together. 18 He is also head of the body, the church; and He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that He Himself will come to have first place in everything. 19 For [aa]it was the Father’s good pleasure for all the [ab]fullness to dwell in Him, 20 and through Him to reconcile all things to Himself, having made peace through the blood of His cross; through Him, I say, whether things on earth or things in [ac]heaven.
Paul is saying that Jesus is everything that Jesus says He is in the Gospels. I find it impossible to assume that Paul did not believe Jesus had a miraculous birth given that he believed that everything that makes the Father God dwelled in Jesus Christ. This isn't a question of if Paul was right or wrong when it comes to what Madison wrote. He seems to imply that it's a unanimous conclusion that Paul would have rejected the thought of a virgin birth, but Paul himself never says anything of the sort. Faceplant number one. (I might keep a running count of his faceplants, but I have not decided yet).
Also look at the NASB translation of Romans 1:3. Paul does not in any way claim that Jesus is Joseph's son. However "born of a descendant of David" could refer to Mary. Faceplant number 2.
Notice how explicit he is in 1:4: Jesus was declared son of God by his resurrection. That is Paul’s obsession; virgin birth would have diluted resurrection as the only credential that mattered. The birth narratives in Matthew and Luke (representing the minority school of thought in the New Testament)
indulged this fantasy that seeped into Christian thought decades after Paul wrote; some of the pious assumed it would be cool to graft the pagan his-mother-was-a-virgin idea onto the Jesus story. Those who want to adore Mary will not find an ally in Paul—who never so much as mentions her.
A lot of front-loaded assumptions here. Paul taught that Jesus was the Messiah that the Jews have been waiting centuries for. For him the Resurrection was proof, but there is no reason that the virgin birth would have taken anything away from the message. Madison only asserts without proof that the virgin birth belief was added to Christian belief decades after Paul wrote Romans. Where is the proof of that? Sure a lot of people today are teaching that but that does not mean it's true. I'm not going to get very far into the fallacy that Jesus' birth story was stolen from pagan myths because Madison does not bother to prove it so I'm gonna just ignore this fourth faceplant and just count this assertion that the virgin birth is a fantasy and the failure in asserting that the virgin birth detracts from the Resurrection as one faceplant - faceplant number three.
Matthew, by the way, insults our intelligence in the first chapter of his gospel. He begins by tediously listing Jesus’ ancestors back to King David (gotta have that pedigree!) then drops the story of the virgin birth on us: Nope, Jesus didn’t have a father. How come the original readers didn’t catch this glaring non sequitur? And how come this is not the point that Christians today realize that Matthew was a fraud and toss the New Testament into the trash?
Matthew was writing to a primarily Jewish audience and wanted to show that Jesus was the Messiah whom had to be a descendant of King David.Who said that Jesus had to be that descendant by a father? Mary was (from what I understand) his biological mother and a descendant of David. Also recall that Matthew's genealogical chapter is rather interesting in that it lists some women in the record and does not list every single individual in every single generation. This points to the face that one can't just ignore the women who played the part in bringing our Lord and Savior to earth. Faceplant number four.
End of digression.
Good maybe we will finally get a good argument.
If I ever get around to writing a secular commentary on this dreadful epistle, I have the title ready: Paul’s Letter to the Romans: God Is Wrath. After his unctuous flattery of the Roman congregation (1:8-15), he gets down to business, to his flawed, ugly theology.
I want to mention four points.
No, God is not obvious by looking around at nature
In verse 20, Paul lays the groundwork for condemning unbelievers: “Ever since the creation of the world his eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made. So they are without excuse.” So God’s power and nature can be “understood” through what he has made? Actually, precisely because God’s nature and power are invisible, they are not understood. Presumably Paul had the natural world in mind, but theologians with a couple thousand years of practice know that this is feeble: indifferent nature shows no mercy to humans. I suspect Paul didn’t give enough thought to this, because in his letters he explains endlessly what God expects and demands. So rules of conduct to convictsinners aren’t at all so obvious from the “things that God has made.”
Faceplant number 5: Just because something is invisible does not mean it can't be understood. We know something of God's character and power from what God has made just like we can look at a piece of art, not matter the medium, and know quite a bit about the artist's skill, abilities, tastes, and personality. All of the earth, the stars, and everything we can see, count, and measure is in the best possible place for us to not just be sustained in our existence but to also be observed. Science, by it's very nature, depends on the assumption that the universe is intelligible and something that we can figure out. Atoms are invisible to use but we can not only detect them but use them to do amazing things technologically. We can find black holes by observing how they affect visible stars around them. Mathematics is not made up by us but discovered.This is why we can use it to describe nature to the point that we can make accurate predictions. We can tell what stars are made of and what kind of atmospheres distant planets have by studying the light coming from them. All of this points to the kind of God we have. No, it does not tells us about his expectations and commands or rules of conduct - that is what the rest of Romans is about. Paul never tells us it is enough to stop at the first chapter and you know everything about God What we are without excuse about is the fact that there is a God.
God can’t wait to get even
Because people resorted to other gods, especially idol worship, God kicks them to the curb. In verses 24, 26 and 28 Paul states explicitly that God “gave them up”—and we get insights into Paul’s tormented personality by his list of things that God gave people up to: (1) the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the degrading of their bodies; (2) to degrading passions; (3) to a debased mind and things that should not be done. Hmmmm…obsessed about sex much? More about that on the next
point. Suffice it to say here that Paul’s concept of God is weighted heavily toward revenge and punishment: God himself gives people up to sin. All this because people did not see fit to “acknowledge God.” No slack given here to folks who didn’t see eye-to-eye with Paul on
religion, those who—and this was the big no-no for Paul—cheerfully embraced lust (we’d all be better off if Paul had given it a try). Paul doesn’t seem to have heard the stories about Jesus
hanging out with sinners.
Faceplant number six: God has every right to give people over to themselves. Do not forget. Paul just argued that we have no excuse for not acknowledging God. Also those are thing that God keeps people from. Paul is not pretending that he is some saint who deserves God's mercy. He is building the case that that if you deny God, God has every right to turn you over to yourself. All the lusts and degradation that Madison seems to think that Paul is wrong in casting in a negative light are things that will destroy you if you are caught up in them. They are what is wrong with our society and they are why Donald J Trump is President of the United States. These things are the consequences of God allowing us to have what Madison says he wants - God gone out of the public sphere. It's not a punshment but consequences of what the unregenerate and unrepentant want. Makes me wonder if Madison has ever bothered to read the rest of the letter.
Knee-jerk disgust about women loving women, men loving me
Now, full disclosure before I get into this one: I am gay, so it’s no surprise that I have no patience with Paul’s rant against same-sex love. Sure, we can cut him some slack since his thinking was influenced by severe teaching in the Old Testament—and he lived centuries before human
sexuality had been studied. What would we expect? But the folks who want to point to these verses in Romans 1 (vv. 26-27) as binding “word of God”—because “saint” Paul said them—are blind to their own hypocrisy: they don’t notice that Paul shuddered at heterosexuality as well!
Everything in his writings about sexuality screams dysfunction! And we have the impulse to scream at Paul, “Get a life!”
I disagree. Paul did not hate sex and the Bible in no way - anywhere - casts sex as evil. It does put limitations and commandments on how sex should be practiced. Because God has given humanity the gift of sex he has every right to tell us how to use it properly so we don't destroy ourselves. We know that there are right ways and wrong ways to have sex. For example God says don't have sex with your close family members. Is that because it's icky and disgusting or is it because it will destroy your family? Would not an omnipotent and omniscient deity know better than you do about what to do with your genitalia? I would think so. The point is that God does want you to have a life. Your best life.
Paul disdained men loving women: “It is well for a man not to touch a woman.
But because of cases of sexual immorality, each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband.” (1 Corinthians 7:1-2) You read that right: marriage is okay because liability to immortality should drive you to it. Or how about this gem: “And those who belong to Christ
Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires” (Galatians 5:24). And this: To the unmarried and the widows I say that it is well for them to remain unmarried as I am” (I Corinthians 7:8). True enough, Paul’s delusions about Jesus returning soon warped his thinking: “…the
appointed time has grown short; from now on, let even those who have wives be as though they had none” (I Corinthians. 7:29).
Madison has made this flawed argument before and it's just wrong. Faceplant number 6. Paul said that if you can remain unmarried and not be tempted by sexual immorality (sex outside of marriage) stay unmarried. He did not say that you are less saved or immoral or angering God because you want to get married. Paul had nothing against marriage.
Outside of the most pathetic cults, you will never find a marriage counselor who urges couples to follow Paul’s advice. So please don’t quote him as an expert on love, marriage or
sexuality—hetero or homo. And since he was so wrong about so many things (see my 14 October 2016 post), don’t credit him with being tuned into God’s thoughts—about anything. Yet Paul remains the default authority on homosexuality for so many today. No doubt with Romans 1 in mind, the
Catholic Church cannot budge from its official position that gay people are “disordered.”
Paul's point is entirely missed. Madison again fails to point a single thing Paul got wrong. Of course, Madison can disagree with Paul, but it sure would be nice if he could explain how Paul is wrong. Paul is building up to chapter 3 demonstrating that all of us - gay and straight - are sinners and disordered.
Paul’s long list of those who “deserve to die”
Full stop, Christians. How can anyone read the ending of Romans 1 and say, with a straight face, that Paul should be called a saint? Or that this text merits inclusion in “the good book”? Here he shows us his full venom: “… they are gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, rebellious toward parents, foolish,faithless, heartless, ruthless. They know God’s decree, that those who practice such things deserve to die…”
I wanna ask Madison: "Do you wanna be around people who are "gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, rebellious toward parents, foolish,faithless, heartless, ruthless"? Honestly? I do not. Yet we are. At some point, you, me, Madison, and everyone you know has been guilty of at least one of these. It's not that all of them deserve to die - we are all guilty.
It’s a common Christian dodge that the nasty god of the Old Testament gave way to the loving God of the New Testament. But Paul does his best to keep the wrathful god alive and hovering over hapless humans. He includes gossips and rebellious children among those who deserve todie—according to God’s own decree. I guess it’s actually a good thing that—apart from obsessive scholars—the Letter to the Romans is pretty much ignored by the faithful, for whom The Man Upstairs is a benevolent
figure, a cosmic buddy. Hildegard of Bingen is a saint with far moreappeal than Paul: “”God hugs you. You are encircled by the arms of the mystery of God.”
I agree that many Christians do try to dodge the force of Madison's argument but thst unnecessary because Paul is not arguing that people who do evil things deserve to die for their sins and people who believe in his teaching do not deserve to did because they are better people. Paul's argument is that every person is a sinner in need of a savior.. He is building a case starting wit the simple fact that you should at least recognize that you have a creator to whom you are accountable.
One of those obsessive scholars was C. H. Dodd, who wrote in 1939 that The
Letter to the Romans is “the first great work of Christian theology.” Please, say it ain’t so.
Dodd makes a valid point that Madion has failed to disprove.
David Madison was a pastor in the Methodist Church for nine years. He has a
PhD in Biblical Studies from Boston University. His book, Ten Tough Problems in Christian Thought and Belief: a Minister-Turned-Atheist Shows Why You Should Ditch the Faith, was published last year by Tellectual Press.
Keep praying for him
Debunking Christianity: Maybe It’s Not the Worst Book in the Bible…