A reading of Romans 7–9
In a nutshell: Paul explains that the law couldn’t outmaneuver the powers of corruption. The law triggers awareness in one’s inner self of the path to perfection (God), but our bodies belong to the decaying world around us (death). Jesus is an injection of God’s power that makes us strong enough to survive and resist the corruption around us.
I am convinced that there is nothing in death or life, nothing in the present or the future, nothing from fallen angels nor from political authorities, nor from any other powerful force, nothing above the earth nor below the earth, nor any other created thing that can separate us from the love of God that has been made known to us through the Anointed Jesus our lord.
Do you ever watch sci-fi and fantasy movies? Quite a few play with the idea of disintegrating wormholes, unstable pathways between worlds that sometimes collapse into the void. The journey through a wormhole is fraught with peril, and if you’re caught inside, you, too, may disappear into the void.
The world Paul is describing is sort of like that. It’s like we’re swimming through a sea of decay full of monsters that are clawing us down into the mire. It’s the stuff of creation, but a new form of reality is emerging from it that is able to surpass the creative muck—and live forever. Paul thinks we will either be churned under or emerge as part of that new, enduring reality. The law is like a ship designed to take you through the wormhole. It has all the right pieces and is equipped for the journey, but the decaying reality is so enormous that it is sucking us back. The architecture of this ship (the law) is dictated somewhat by its surroundings. It could never have been designed without some awareness of the destination, but it can’t completely extricate itself from the decaying reality in which it first operated. The law-as-ship doesn’t have enough power to shove us through to the other side.
Enter Paul’s Jesus.
I’ve been wondering why Paul always uses the phrase “the power and presence of God.” The translators of The Authentic Letters of Paul purposefully didn’t keep familiar words like “sin” and “spirit” and “Christ,” because such terms have developed long and complicated histories in the Western world. The “power and presence” of God is what has traditionally been rendered “spirit” in other translations. In past letters that hasn’t meant anything special to me as I read—that is, the new term didn’t stick out to me—but here in Romans I am finding it especially helpful.
Paul values the law, but he seems to feel that the law has been manipulated by the monsters of decay: “The power of corruption used this prohibition [‘do not covet’] to deceive me and arouse all kinds of excessive desire in me,” he says (8:8). The gap between a person’s awareness of God’s reality (the law) and the reality of the decaying earth (death) creates a sort of dark power that seduces us. The law, he believes, is “weakened by the conflicted character of earthly existence” (8:3). “I rejoice in the law of God so far as my inner self is concerned, but I observe another law in my outward acts at war with the law of my mind and this other law—the law of corrupting power—takes me captive” (9:22–23).
There is a rich context behind this vision. Conjure the vivid monsters of chaos from the Mesopotamian Enuma Elish, predecessors to Noah’s fallen angels, who would employ the name of God to craft a mirror world that was imperfect but still full of power (see Orlov, Dark Mirrors). That is all latent in Paul’s world.
This is a fundamentally mythical worldview. Paul’s Jesus doesn’t “rescue” his people by yanking them through the wormhole out of the grasp of monsters. The world has been “moaning with birth pangs” (8:22) precisely because life/creation comes out of death and decay. Jesus people’s physical bodies suffer and decay so that new immortal bodies can form; within each rotten trunk is a holy seed (quoting Isaiah 6:13). The power is deposited there, in the inner self, so that like little brothers and sisters the Jesus people can emerge as Jesus already has.
By this definition, the “holy spirit” is an injection of the power to resist the seductive power of corruption (sin). Paul seems to think people are capable of greater and lesser acts of divine power. He certainly has high standards for himself, and frequently uses athletic metaphors to establish ranks and rewards. I imagined as I read a vivid sea or stormy universe (earthly life) through which we are struggling to make headway, when suddenly we receive a boost that helps us swim farther and faster, more aware of our surroundings and able to see the far shore (new creation).
I don’t believe this to be a true picture of reality in the sense of an alternate world or “heaven” that people ought to strive to reach, but it is a rich and alluring picture for me of a just and peaceful world right here. I recall Thich Nhat Hanh’s advice to take each step in such a way that you leave no imprint of sadness or anger or violence in the ground. Rather, step in such a way that you leave behind love and compassion and peace, and gradually, through walking, you will transform the earth into the kingdom of God. (Such a teaching is especially meaningful when you take into consideration Thich Nhat Hanh’s own practice of this in the wake of his recent stroke.) Paul’s Jesus in such a scenario could be understood as more than a teacher who inspires you to step more lightly; Paul’s Jesus is also the pair of wings.
Questions for the Road:
- Who helps you to step more lightly through the discouraging moments in life? How do they do it? Can you do the same?
- I didn’t touch on Paul’s adoption language in this passage, but Brandon Scott in The Real Paul sees this as extremely important because it gives non-Israelite nations a place in the story of Israel. What sort of things can we do to welcome people who have no place in the stories of our communities?
Thanks for reading this entry from the #30DaysofPaul reading challenge. We’re reading the seven undisputed letters of Paul in 30 days: 1 Thessalonians, Galatians, 1 Corinthians, 2 Corinthians, Philemon, Philippians, Romans. Why not join us? Download the reading plan, which is based on the work of the Westar Paul Seminar as published in The Authentic Letters of Paul.
Cassandra Farrin joined Westar in 2010 and currently serves as the Marketing & Outreach Director. A US-UK Fulbright Scholar, she has an M.A. in Religious Studies from Lancaster University (England) and a B.A. in Religious Studies from Willamette University. She is passionate about books and projects that in some way address the intersection of ethics and early Christian history.