Tearing Down the Temple

Reactions to reading the book of Romans

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Friday, August 12, 2005

Romans 1:1,2—The presuppositions of unbelief II

The presuppositions of unbelief did not gain such ascendancy by themselves. They were the results of furious advocacy in the generations preceding us. We will examine some of these seats of advocacy in later posts.

It is impossible to say how early I picked up the presuppositions of unbelief. It has occurred to me to ask, is this the very heart of original sin, that we are equipped with the power of unbelief from birth, unlike Adam and Eve who were in communion with God from their earliest moments? Did Jesus have a gene that none of the rest of us have, a consequence of His special heritage, that protected Him from acquiring the presuppositions of unbelief? Such speculation fails to pierce the veil that hides our deepest natures from us.

Nevertheless, it is the subtlest of traps to think and believe that we can only truly know those things that are within us. It is a lie of the enemy. We do not know what is within us. What is within us has little meaning in itself, and pursuing it leads us in circles. We cannot understand our deepest nature without reference to something external. Without exterior standards, we are hopelessly captive to our illusions about ourselves. The search for “identity,” without external reference, is ultimately fruitless.

One of my favorite poets, e e cummings, wrote in response to someone’s comment about his being self-centered, that he had yet to encounter a peripherally located ego. We are, almost by definition, at the center of our life’s mission. Our entire training is based on the supposition that we command our own ship, and that the mission we fix upon in life determines and characterizes our life as it unfolds. We would be fools not to believe that our own deepest reflections must inform that mission (“Know thyself” ) at the most fundamental levels, wouldn’t we?

In Romans 1:1,2, Paul turns the world inside out with his first words to the Roman Christians: he says he has been called (not that he felt a call) as a messenger, appointed to (not that he chose) the service of the Gospel, and that this Gospel was promised (not that it was suggested to him by his study of ancient manuscripts) by the prophets in the Scriptures. Paul had been jerked away from his life’s mission (preserving Jewish orthodoxy) by a Power completely outside himself that invaded him, changed him, and sent him on another mission at right angles with his previous path.

Paul’s attitude reflects the revolutionary change of perspective that his life experienced. But the point is not that he changed (people change all the time), but that the changes were the product of an external Power acting on him in an entirely new (to him) way. His reference points for action were located entirely outside himself, and he was guided by what benefited the Gospel, rather than his personal interest.

These are hard things to believe, and if that were all there were to his story, probably we would not believe it. It is only when we encounter the Gospel that we find that which could take him out of himself (and us out of ourselves). Even before we become Christians, the Gospel speaks to us from across that veil of ignorance we have about ourselves, our origins, our purpose, and our destiny. If we do not choose to believe Paul when he says that he is an ambassador for the living Christ, then other claims he makes will seem problematical. This is not to suggest that those who do not (at first) believe Paul’s claim cannot come to faith. I certainly didn't.

But before you decide about Paul, hear him. This inside-out world that he writes from is the real world, one in which you and I are really at the periphery, because God and His Christ are at the center, and the Gospel radiates from that center.

In his celebrated commentary, The Epistle to the Romans, Karl Barth makes extensive use of geometric analogies to demonstrate the ways that truth is seen from various points of view. Without critiquing that in any way, I want to add that God sees the whole geometric construction. If He speaks to us from outside our world, it is not because God is otherworldly but because the world as we commonly experience it is only a small fraction of reality. Our limited viewpoint is a consequence of sin.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

e e cummings is one of my favorite poets as well. I don't have anything profound to say right now except that I'm reading through both your blogs and so far . . . so good! :)

10:24 PM  

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