Scripture: Romans 5: 12-19 Nigel Bunce
Two Christianities coexist in the New Testament. The Gospel Jesus, and St. Paul’s theology that he expressed most clearly in the Letter to the Romans. As we begin the season of Lent, our lectionary presents us with a series of readings from Romans. Today, I want to try to summarize what Paul wrote.
St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans was different from the letters Paul wrote to churches that he had founded in places like Corinth, Galatia, and Thessalonika. He wrote those others as pastoral letters to encourage or correct the members of his new churches.
For example, First Corinthians is an immeasurably positive pastoral contribution to Christianity. Paul identified several misconceptions of the members of his new church in Corinth. His responses were consistently about community. Love for one another should animate the community. The good of the community is more important than the desires of any individual. The community is the Body of Christ, which is greater than the sum of its parts
Paul wrote Romans before visiting the existing Christian community in Rome. The letter sets out the theology that he had been developing for many years. Without Romans, we would probably think of Paul as a pastoral presence rather than a founder of one of the “two Christianities”.
Romans is a difficult “read”
Paul’s arguments in Romans are complex and hard to understand. Paul does not always present them in what seems the most logical order. Indeed, the next four weeks’ readings skip back and forth among Chapters 3-5 of Romans. We begin today with part of Chapter 5, in which Paul contrasts Adam and Christ.
Many authors have noted that Christianity has two main strands. They are so different that we can call them two Christianities. One strand is the Gospels. They record events in the life of the earthly Jesus. The other comes from Paul, especially in Romans. Paul focusses mostly on the eternal Christ-figure and the significance of the Cross. The mystery of why Jesus Christ, God’s anointed Son, had to die on the Cross was central to Paul’s theology.
To me, Paul’s arguments in Romans are not altogether convincing, as well as complicated. Here is my summary.
Original sin and justification through faith
In today’s reading from Chapter 5, Paul takes literally the story of the Garden of Eden. God punished Adam, the first man, for eating the forbidden fruit. Adam, one man, brought sin into the world. That initial case of Original Sin has been a pandemic. It has infected everyone since, and made us all guilty.
However, Jesus Christ, another man, gave his life as a free gift. This brought justification. Paul was an ex-Pharisee, learned in the Law of Moses. Justification is Paul’s legalistic term. It means that God graciously overlooks the punishment that we all merit because of our sins [Romans 3: 21-26].
But justification is only possible if we believe in Jesus Christ. Paul wrote that God deliberately put Jesus forward as a “sacrifice of atonement by his blood” [Romans 3: 25-26]. That is, God and humanity became reconciled through Christ’s death. Paul is very clear that Jesus’ death was God’s intention. Jesus died ’for us’ (literally, on our behalf) [Romans 5: 6; 8].
As far as I can tell, Paul saw Christ’s death as a parallel to the sacrifice of the lambs for the Passover meal. In 1 Corinthians 5:7, Paul made this parallel explicit. “For Christ, our paschal lamb, has been sacrificed”. For Paul, it was no coincidence that the Crucifixion took place during the annual Passover festival.
A problem with logical arguments
The problem with any logical argument is that each premise must be true, otherwise the conclusion may not be valid. In this case, original sin causes an inescapable problem. Original sin means that you have been sinful from the moment of your conception. You cannot escape its bondage. That says that each of us bears the guilt of one man’s (Adam’s) sin. Paul’s argument means that we have to accept the Garden of Eden story literally. Its logic fails if we believe that homo sapiens evolved gradually over many millennia.
But why did God banish Adam from the garden? Not just because he ate the forbidden fruit. God punished Adam because God felt that Adam had gotten uppity [Genesis 3: 22-24]. Now Adam knew the difference between good and evil. He might eat from the tree of life, and become immortal like a god.
Once we admit that sin may not be hereditary, we can imagine a different stream of Christian thought. That is why Pelagius opposed St. Augustine concerning original sin. Pelagius believed that original sin had not tainted human nature. Instead, human beings have the ability to choose good or choose evil. Pelagius wrote, “By granting us the wonderful gift of freedom, God gave us the capacity to do evil as well as good. Indeed, we would not be free unless God had given us this ability” [Letters of Pelagius, p. 6]
The two Christianities
To me, Paul’s arguments seem incompatible with the Gospels. The Gospels repeatedly record that Jesus referred to God as Heavenly Father. He instructed his disciples to pray to “Our Father”, as we shall do this morning. Just last week, we read the story of the Transfiguration. On the mountain-top, the disciples heard the heavenly voice say, “This is my beloved son in whom I am well pleased. Listen to him” [Matthew 17: 5].
I cannot square the loving Father of the Gospels with Paul’s assertion that “God put forward [Jesus Christ, his beloved Son] as a sacrifice of atonement’ [Romans 3: 25]. Paul’s God seems to act like a sadist.
To return to where I began. There are two Christianities. The Gospels show us a Jesus who is inclusive. The Gospel writers saw him as the long-awaited Messiah, and in the lineage of the ancient prophets. They looked forward to a time when God would bring justice to the world. It is unclear to whether that Kingdom of God would come in this world or in a heavenly next world.
Why did Christ have to die?
In his earlier writings, Paul seems to have envisioned the same kind of world, where community, love, and respect were the important characteristics. But in his last years, Paul tried to unravel a mystery. Why did Christ, the perfect man, have to die on the Cross? Could that have been God’s plan all long? Or did Jesus get caught up in contemporary politics involving the Temple leadership and the Roman occupiers?
To me, the sad thing is that Paul’s ruminations have given us a strain of Christianity that is obsessed with sin, death, and guilt. I feel diffident about saying so, but yet I believe that Paul was wrong about whether God ordained that Christ must die on behalf of humanity. I do not believe that Christ had to die to rescue humanity from original sin. And especially not on behalf of my personal sins, as in “Christ died for my sins.”
Could St. Paul have been wrong?
This all sounds very heretical. It certainly is in terms of conventional Church doctrine. But there is a difference between Jesus, Son of God, and Paul, Apostle to the Gentiles. Paul was a mere human being, like you and me. So, like us, Paul could have been wrong. And I think that he was.