On the Importance of Philosophical Reasoning for Biblical Exegesis: Edward Feser and Romans 1:18-23

Introduction
In my mind, the ability to engage in philosophical reasoning in order to tease out the implications of particular interpretations of the Bible and other truths is indispensable for reading the Bible and teaching it to others.

Example

Edward Feser, in a post titled, “Repressed Knowledge of God?” comments that the common interpretation of Romans 1:18-23 is mistaken. Here is the passage in question from the ESV, I would translate it differently, but it reflects the most common interpretation:

Romans 1:18-23 For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. (19) For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. (20) For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. (21) For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. (22) Claiming to be wise, they became fools, (23) and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things.

The common interpretation is that the atheist is the person to whom these verses refer. This can be seen in the writings of many schools of Christian apologetics. The idea is that atheism is always a matter of intellectual dishonesty because the Bible teaches that knowledge of the God of the Bible is so obvious that it can only be suppressed by sheer force of will. Personaly, I think that some people are atheists because they accept bad arguments just like some people believe in God for silly reasons.

Without thinking about Christian theology, the psychology of all atheists, and broader philosophical conclusions, the text of Romans 1:18-23 itself militates against seeing atheists in this passage. The passage is not about people who believe in no gods, but rather those who have good reason to worship the God of the Hebrew Scriptures, but choose to worship idols.(See the footnote of this post about the passage in question for an alternative interpretation). The passage gives good insight into the results of idolatry, which is related to atheism, but it is not directly about atheism at all.

Feser, without attempting to exegete the Bible passage in question, refutes the view that God’s existence is so obvious as to only be denied on purpose rather handily. Here is the relevant portion of his argument:

Do we have a natural tendency to believe in God? Yes, but in something like the way in which someone might have a natural aptitude for music or for art. You might be inclined to play some instrument or to draw pictures, but you’re not going to do either very well without education and sustained practice.  And without cultivating your interest in music or art, your output might remain at a very crude level, and your ability might even atrophy altogether.

Or consider moral virtue.  It is natural to us, but only in the sense that we have a natural capacity for it.  Actually to acquire the virtues still requires considerable effort.  As Aquinas writes: “[V]irtue is natural to man inchoatively…both intellectual and moral virtues are in us by way of a natural aptitude, inchoatively, but not perfectly…(Summa Theologiae I-II.63.1, emphasis added), and “man has a natural aptitude for virtue; but the perfection of virtue must be acquired by man by means of some kind of training” (Summa Theologiae I-II.95.1).

Now, knowledge of God is like this. We are indeed naturally inclined to infer from the natural order of things to the existence of some cause beyond it.  But the tendency is not a psychologically overwhelming one like our inclination to eat or to breathe is. It can be dulled.  Furthermore, the inclination is not by itself sufficient to generate a very clear conception of God.  As Aquinas writes:

To know that God exists in a general and confused way is implanted in us by nature, inasmuch as God is man’s beatitude… This, however, is not to know absolutely that God exists; just as to know that someone is approaching is not the same as to know that Peter is approaching, even though it is Peter who is approaching… (Summa Theologiae I.2.1, emphasis added)

In other words, from a philosophical point of view, to claim that God’s existence is only and ever obvious, is simply untrue. Now, that does not automatically mean that Paul doesn’t teach the falsified point of view. But for those with a conservative evangelical definition of the Bible, it means alternative interpretations should be sought. 

Treat Yourself Like Someone You’re Responsible for Helping

The title of this post is a chapter title from Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos. It’s a good book. My wife and I read together after our daughter goes to bed.

The argument of the second chapter is long and, if you’re unfamiliar either with contemporary evolutionary theory or the book of Genesis, might be difficult to follow on a first read. And that’s okay. I recommend the book. But this post isn’t about the book. It’s about the rule. It’s a good rule.

How many of us know the person who always has the solutions for everybody else’s problems but can’t deal with their wife, their boss, the body, or their finances?

How many of us are that person?

In a series of lessons I gave on Christian mindset for a men’s bible study I used to teach, I wrote that the men should become their own pastors. And what I meant by this was not that they should override or ignore pastoral authority. But rather, that they should aim their reflex to be a hellishly bossy person on themselves. The Bible recommends this practice throughout.

Only take heed to thyself, and keep thy soul diligently, lest thou forget the things which thine eyes have seen, and lest they depart from thy heart all the days of thy life: but teach them thy sons, and thy sons’ sons… (Deuteronomy 4:9)

Keep thy heart with all diligence; for out of it are the issues of life. (Proverbs 4:23)

Take heed unto thyself, and unto the doctrine; continue in them: for in doing this thou shalt both save thyself, and them that hear thee. (1 Timothy 4:16)

Thou hypocrite, first cast out the beam out of thine own eye; and then shalt thou see clearly to cast out the mote out of thy brother’s eye. (Matthew 7:5)

In other words, watch yourself with the same sort of scrutiny that innately makes you want to improve other’s lives.

Abraham’s Virtues

God Blessed Abraham in All Things

Yoram Hazony makes the case that in Genesis, Abraham is painted as a paradigmatically virtuous character. The primary evidence is that while Abraham is not perfect, God has confidence that he will “command his children and his house after him, and they will keep the way of the Lord, to do justice and right.[1]” Also significant is Genesis 24:1, “And the Lord had blessed Abraham in all things.”

Abraham’s Virtues

What are Abraham’s virtues (According to Hazony):

  1. He can be generous to strangers.
  2. He is troubled by injustice to the point of taking great risks to obstruct it (he even argues with God).
  3. He insists on only taking what is his and paying for what he gets.
  4. He is pious.
  5. He is concerned to safeguard his own interests and his family’s.

Many Christians tend to think of self-interest as a vice rather than a virtue. I made my own based on the Abraham story. It nearly matches Hazony’s:

  1. Abraham’s willingness to enter covenants is both altruistic (bless the earth) and self-interested (make a great name, you’ll be blessed, etc)
  2. Abraham rejects human sacrifice (see Genesis 22).[2]
  3. Abraham believes in right and wrong as absolute categories and challenges God’s actions on their basis.
  4. Abraham doesn’t fear conflict, or rather, shows great courage in the face of battle (when it comes to the power of giant cities, he has a harder time, but in his defense fighting tribal kings is a different animal that opposing the might of emperors in their walled megacities).
  5. Abraham insists on hospitality.
  6. Abraham trusts God (Genesis 15:6).

The Good Life in the Bible

Virtues are the mean between extremes and can easily become vices without careful introspection. And in Abraham’s story, we see time and again where his self-interest conflicts with the well-being of his wife (letting her into a royal harem!) and his trust in God (having a child with Hagar).[3]

In academic Biblical studies, the focus is typically on the apparent evils committed by this or that Biblical character that they tend to miss the idea that the authors are painting pictures of the good life. Because of this, they highlight the necessarily difficult task of making wise and just decisions in light of a hierarchy of goods which are often in conflict.

The idea that Abraham was virtuous despite nearly killing his son and that he was deeply concerned with his family’s riches and reputation is intellectually difficult. While I take the story of Isaac as a rejection of human sacrifice, most people I know think Abraham was really going to do it. But despite Abraham’s flaws, anybody could read through the Abraham story (Genesis 12:1-24:1) asking, “what does this say about living a full and good life?” The food for thought would be filling.

References

 [1] This is Hazony’s translation of Genesis 18:19. The Philosophy of the Hebrew Bible, 112.

[2]  In my mind, Genesis 22 makes it clear that Abraham, never for a second, was going to submit to the demand to kill Isaac. The New Testament has readings of the story implying that perhaps God could raise Isaac from the dead if Abraham did it. That may be true, but in the story, Abraham tells Isaac that God would provide an offering for the sacrifice.

 [3] 113

Virtue Lists in the New Testament

Virtue Lists?

In the Bible there are several famous virtue lists. A virtue list is exactly what is sounds like, a list of positive traits in sequence as a description of the good life.

As a part of Scripture, the New Testament virtue lists are easy to overlook and if you misunderstand God’s grace, they can seem overly moralistic.

Here are some examples:

  1. 2 Peter 1:5-7
  2. Galatians 5:22-23
  3. James 3:17-18

Helpful Theses:

I have some theses that might help us interpret the virtue lists in the New Testament.

  1. The virtue lists are meant to be over-interpreted
    There is a time and a place for lengthy ethical argument, and in several places the New Testament engages in this (with respect to items of ritual usually in Hebrews, Romans, Galatians, and 1 Corinthians). But usually, in the New Testament, general ethical principles are usually assumed rather than explained. This makes sense because the people to whom the New Testament was written would have been taught Christian ethics at length in other settings. The letters were meant to convince the audiences of particular ideas or at least to revive consciousness amongst the churches of the love the apostles had for them. Because the lists are examples of rhetoric and not dialectic (in Aristotle’s parlance), they are almost certainly meant to be “hooked-in” to more direct teaching about Christian character which happened orally. In other words: the virtue lists are meant to be over-interpreted, insofar as a minimal possible meaning is not sufficient for lists appearing in such a context.
  1. There are limits to this over interpretation or, look for part of the “why” this virtue appeared around the place it appeared.
    The virtue lists are limited in meaning by the context in which they appear and the apparent milieu of the author/original audience of the letter. But that doesn’t mean that the individual words are limited to one technical meaning.
  1. The lists are hooks for hanging Biblical festoons
    In early Christianity, there was a great deal of oral tradition at work. Think about it. There were Old Testament quotations, Jesus stories, Jesus sayings, apostolic sayings, second temple rabbinic sayings and so-on. If it is true that this was the case (it is) and that the teaching efforts of early Christian leaders were as in-depth as Acts 20:7-9 indicates, then it would appear that all of the above Biblical background is intentionally being called to mind with virtue lists of this sort. We cannot always know, with certainty, which stories, Proverbs, or extended themes are being called to mind. But the more familiar we are with the Old Testament, the Deuterocanonical books (they’re in the Old Testament if you’re not Protestant), and the four gospels, then the more the lists can do their duty by calling to mind moral exemplars and failures in the Bible.
  1. Mediterranean moralists matter
    Similarly, the background of some words in these lists is best found in the works of Aristotle, Plato, Seneca, Musonius Rufus, Marcus Aurelius, Cicero, Quintilian, and so-on. Such ancient moralists and rhetoricians often explained the virtues in exacting detail in terms of individual psychological states and social ramifications. While the apostles or their churches may not have been thinking explicitly in such terms, they were part of the culture that these writers were trying to describe and that these authors influenced.
  1. Such lists are hooks for contemporary application
    Finally, these lists are meant to be explained and recalled not only in terms of the fullness of their meaning, but in terms of their contemporary application. If somebody memorized the fruit of the Spirit, they would almost certainly have thought of that list in terms of the character of Jesus, the teachings of Jesus about love, the importance of being peaceable amongst brothers, and the cruciality of self-denial. But they also would have thought of the list in terms of how to behave today and tomorrow and how to plan ahead to have such character traits.

Example: Self-Control (Galatians 5:23)

  1. Paul encourages self-control to people who are confused about the nature of the Old Testament Law and its relationship to the gospel message. Ultimately, Paul says that the highest part of the Old Testament Law (love your neighbor) is a central part of gospel teaching and therefore Christians who do not obey the other Old Testament laws regarding food, ceremony, and civil jurisprudence still can be said to fulfill the law. So, Paul points out that one of the results of living in line with the gospel message (fruit of the Spirit) is self-control. Paul does this for two reasons:
    1. He really thinks that living in line with his teaching and with a group of believers will/does result in self-control.
    2. He wishes to remind them that self-control is worthy to be sought and obtained.
  2. In terms of the Old Testament and later traditions, self-control goes all the way back to the story of Cain and Abel, wherein the Lord tells Cain that he must master sin, lest it consume him. King David was both a paragon of self-control in his dealings with Saul and a failure in his dealings with Uriah and Bathsheba. Solomon, Ecclesiastes, and the later wisdom tradition all give encomiums to the self-controlled individual. Here is an example, “…greater is he who rules his spirit than he who takes a city. (Proverbs 16:23)”
  3. It goes without saying that a great deal of Stoic writing was about the importance of self-control, the only source was one’s mind and will and the only goals were personal contentment and city-state harmony. For the Christian, the ground and goal are God, but this does not mean that the Stoic reflections have nothing instructive within them. In fact, Aristotle makes self-control itself the central trait for becoming a functional person.
  4. Next, when thinking through all of these angles, start thinking through the contemporary ramifications of having no self-control (look up statistics on hours spent watching Television, calories eaten, pornography watched, and so-on). One might also think of which Old Testament persona he or she wishes to emulate in the face of these temptations. Similarly, one might imagine a community in which everybody exhibited a behavior and ask whether or not that community would be pleasing to God’s Spirit. We might even then begin to think about which circumstances to avoid in order to prevent temptation due to weak self-control and what exercises of self-denial, prayer, and confession might help us to increase in this most central of virtues.

Conclusion:

The virtue lists serve a variety of rhetorical and dialectical functions, but their main function is to help Christians obtain Christ-likeness through the provision of abstract traits with multiple specific applications.

What if John wrote first?

In Star Wars: A New Hope, the character Han Solo was confronted by an intimidating bounty hunter, Greedo. In the original cut of the film, Han shot Greedo before things could get out of hand. This fit with the anti-hero arc, Han was the scoundrel with a heart of gold. In later recuts of the film, Greedo shot first. And so in nerd circles, people lament, ‘Han Shot First.’

And this raises an interesting question, what if John wrote first? I’m actually of the opinion that Matthew’s gospel was written first, but Paul Anderson (among the few scholars who read and digested J.A.T. Robinson’s The Priority of John) mentions a startling line of argument:

[I]f John was produced in an isolated region, it may be easier to infer that three traditions [Matthew, Mark, and Luke] might have overlooked John than to believe that John has overlooked all three of the Synoptic traditions.

The rest of the paper is okay. If that idea catches on, it would be great to hear Bible scholars lament the death of their elaborate source critical theories, “Mark wrote first!”

The Image of God: Each Man Makes Heaven and Earth Anew

In Genesis 1:1-2, God makes the heavens and the earth.

In Genesis 1:26-31, God makes man in his image.

Okay.

We’re not able to engage in creating a cosmos from nothing.

But here’s what we can do.

We construct the world in unique ways, each of us.

The objective world, of course, is real.

But any particular first person point of view is as vast as the universe itself and it is entirely unique from all other first person points of view.

And so, by going through the world, we come to new perspectives on the heavens and the earth from out point of view that are more or less true depending on how we came to them.

But the point is that in each of us is a universe. To be a human being is, in a subjective sense, to create the world anew.

Maybe that’s why gaining the whole world is not worth losing your soul.

Christian Conflict Resolution

Like all people, Christians have conflict over ideas, practices, preferred traditions, and how the to spend money. Conflict is good. It helps solve problems. But we frequently handle this conflict in ways that contradict the purpose of the church and the content of the gospel message! When we value a minor thing as though it were a major thing, we let our emotional response guide us rather than truth, practicality, or ethics. And so below, I’ll explain what appears to me to be a New Testament guide to conflict resolution among Christians:

Christian Conflict Resolution

A Translation of Philippians 4:2-9:[1]

“I am urging Euodia and I am urging Syntyche to have the same way of thinking in the Lord. Yes, I am even asking you, true yoke-fellow, assist these women. They struggled in the gospel alongside me with both Clement and the rest of my co-workers whose names are in the Book of Life.

Rejoice in the Lord always, again I will say: rejoice! Let your reasonableness be made known to all people, the Lord is near. Do not make a habit of fretting about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God. Then the peace of God which surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

Finally, brothers, whatever is honest, whatever is noble, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever causes affection, whatever is commendable, if there is any virtue and if there is anything praiseworthy take account of these things; and that which you learned and received, and heard and observed in me, put these things into practice and the God of peace will be with you.”

Below is an attempt to give a commentary on the passage above, followed by an argument for why I think it is meant to conflict resolution. But for those more interested in the practical take away, here it is. In list form, Paul’s recommendations for Christian conflict resolution:

  1. Call to mind your calling as Christians
    If you remember, in the midst of a conflict, who you are, who the other person is, and where you are, and why you’re together in the first place, then you’ll have a foundation for productive Christian conflict. To “have the same way of thinking” in the passage hearkens back to Philippians 2:5-11. It doesn’t mean “agree in all things.” It means remember to try to be like Jesus.
  2. Rejoice in the Lord always.
    Think of specific reasons to be joyful in connection with your faith. So think of Christ’s death for sins, your forgiveness, the greatness of God’s love, answered prayers, etc. 
  3. Behave reasonably (esp.) when you have an audience
    Paul recommends that when others are present, you put extra care into being moderate and reasonable. This makes sense, as acting vindictive or angry in public exacerbates things.
  4. Recognize the nearness of the Lord
    Just like realizing you have an audience might make you circumspect, remembering that the Lord is near ought to make you more so. 
  5. Do not fret about anything
    Allowing a thought to occupy your mind obsessively can blow it out of proportion. Instead of thinking constantly about how you’re not getting your way, Paul recommends the next step.
  6. Thankfully ask God to grant your requests
    Think of specific reasons to be thankful, and in that attitude of thanksgiving, ask God to give you what is best. God may grant your request. Also, you’re preparing yourself to seek the best thing, not merely what you want in the moment. And so Christian arguments should include time for prayer. 
  7. Think about what is good in the other.
    It’s harder to hate somebody and aim to thwart their desires without reason when you sit and consider what it best in them. For instance, you’ve probably had the experience where somebody tells you a true, positive fact when you’re mad or sad and you start to laugh. That’s a sign that you’re being persuaded into a positive frame of mind.
  8. Practice the Paul’s spiritual disciplines in accordance with Paul’s gospel.
    Finally, everybody involved should be practicing self-denial, prayer, fasting, etc. Every Christian ought to be aiming their life at Christ-likeness. And in this letter and spread throughout the New Testament are the practices in accord with that lifestyle.

A Christian Conflict Resolution Commentary

  1. I am urging Euodia and I am urging Syntyche to have the same way of thinking in the Lord. Yes, I am even asking you, true yoke-fellow, assist these women. They struggled in the gospel alongside me with both Clement and the rest of my co-workers whose names are in the Book of Life.
    Paul reminds the women and the entire Philippian church that they are co-workers in the gospel. And the gospel comes with a calling to acquire the mind of Christ. And so if you remember that you’re on the same task force, it will be easier to get along. And in fact, if you remember that your partners in conflict have their names in the book of life, you’ll remember how much God loves them too!
  2. Rejoice in the Lord always. Again I will say: rejoice!
    In order for these women to get along, Paul challenges them to rejoice in the Lord. The idea here is that when dealing with disagreement, if both of you think about the reasons that Jesus Christ has given you to rejoice, then this will set the tone for your own approach to the issue.
  3. Let your reasonableness be made known to all people.
    The idea here is that being open to reason and dealing with a conflict in a winsome and evidence based way not is not only the right thing to do, but it goes a long way in preserving the public image of the Christian church for its members as well as for its opponents. In other words, think about the issue enough to talk about it well, have a discussion and deal with it in a self-controlled and moderate manner. Paul will go on to tell them not to let the issue occupy their minds constantly as human beings are wont to do.
  4. The Lord is near. Do not make a habit of fretting about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God.
    Conflict has a tendency to create anxiety or annoyance. So, remembering that the Lord Jesus Christ is near, Christians ought to pray when they have conflict rather than letting the distress of the difficult occupy and distract their minds until it foments into a terrible argument. Instead, it is better to pray and move on.
  5. Then the peace of God which surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
    Paul then says that if these steps are followed on both sides, that the peace of God, which is impossible to grasp for outsiders, will protect their hearts and minds from needless divisions, grumbling, and conflict. Do note the focus on peace in relationship to the conflict mentioned above and that it comes up again at the end of verse 9.
  6. Finally, brothers
    This address is the biggest piece of evidence against the conflict resolution interpretation (that and the fact that as far as I can tell, no commentary agrees with me). But I think it is possible for his advice to Euodia and Syntyche, to include an address to the whole church. This makes sense when you consider that 4:2-7 are already in a letter which was to be read aloud to everybody.

    1. whatever is honest
      Assuming the conflict-resolution-interpretation, whatever is true would mean whatever integrity and fidelity is apparent in somebody’s life. This makes sense when one considers that αληθη can mean “honest, truthful, or right.”
    2. whatever is noble
      Here, then, Paul is challenging them to think about whatever it is in somebody that is noble of character. Presumably, the focus is on character traits which pertain to achieving honorable status in God’s kingdom and in society in general. There is also such a thing as ascribed honor, but σεμνος seems to me to be focused on character traits, not offices or birth.
    3. whatever is just
      Whatever this person does toward God and man that is right.
    4. whatever is pure
      The word pure carries the weight of ancient rites of sacrifice and ceremonial washing that pertained to the difference between the realm of the gods and man. In the case of Christians this word was transformed into a word about the status of those who have been received into God’s family and into a word about morality rather than about ritual cleansing. So, think about that this person is cleansed by Christ and that this person refrains from this or that sin that they used to do.
    5. whatever causes affection
      Whatever causes you to have warm feelings toward somebody, think on these things. Think about their laugh, their kindness to others, a moment when they were pitiable before God and contrite about their sins, and so-on.
    6. whatever is commendable
      Here, the idea is concerning that which others speak highly of them about. What are they good at? What moral traits go before them? Do they dress well, manage their family well, are they eloquent, and so-on? Think about these things.
    7. if there is any virtue
      If anything in them lines up with the classical virtues: courage, prudence, justice, and self-control. Think about these things.
    8. and if there is anything praiseworthy
      Does this person have any trait that makes them a figure worthy of public appellation, not just private praise? Are they a patron, a benefactor, a broker, of good blood, do they show kindness, do they share the gospel? In the case of Christians, are they a member of a good nation or an important family (yes and yes)?
    9. take account of these things;
      Paul wants them to consider all of these factors in one another when they are having disagreements. The practical reason for this is obvious. It allows for rhetorical and dialectical charity in the leadership affairs of those who are “citizens of heaven” (3:20, cf. 1:27).
  7. and that which you learned and received, and heard and observed in me, put these things into practice
    Here, Paul is using his gospel message (2:5-11) and his own example (1 Corinthians 8:1-11:1 and 2 Corinthians 11-13) to show them how to deal with conflict with those inside the group. Paul is reminding them to that only by putting these things into practice will they make progress, since Paul is a designated representative of the Jesus whom they mutually claim to be their Lord.
  8. and the God of peace will be with you.
    The take away here is that once these habits of thought are put into practice, then God’s peace will reside with the church. 

Appendix:

The Dominant Interpretation of Philippians 4:2-9

The passage of Scripture above is often (in the majority of commentaries) interpreted as a paraenesis (a collection of general and miscellaneous ethical advice).[2]

The passage seems more specific than that to me. Philippians 4:2-9 is an attempt on Paul’s part to resolve a conflict in the church at Philippi. The passage above is Paul’s application of generally wise advice on Christian living (4:4-9) to the specific issue at hand (4:2-3): a conflict between two notable members of the church leadership. It is notable that David Alan Black suggests a similar point of view for verses 4:2-7 in his book Linguistics for Students of New Testament Greek.

In Philippians 4:2-3, Paul urges two women to start working together or at least to come to have “the same way of thinking” that Paul has urged elsewhere in the letter which is summed up in the humility of Jesus demonstrated in the gospel story (see especially 1:27-2:11). So, Paul rhetorically hooks this section directly to 1:27 and 2:1-5.

It may not matter, but Paul does use the present tense of the word translated above as “I am urging” which could mean one of two things:

  1. Paul is performing a speech-act (like saying, “I pronounce you husband and wife”) wherein Paul is urging, in that very sentence, for them to get along.
  2. An introduction to a new line of thought: “I am urging, in what follows, that you be of one mind.”

If we take 4:2-3 to be the end of Paul’s instruction about getting along (option 1), then the rest of the passage is simply general moral and spiritual advice. But if 4:2-3 is introducing what follows (option 2), then we have Paul’s vision of Christian conflict resolution. There are four main reasons for seeing 4:2-3 as an introduction to the material that follows all the way until verse 9.

  1. It allows this closing material to fit with the apparent thesis statement of the letter (1:27-30).
  2. It helps make sense of the fact that several of the things Paul says to “take account of” are characteristics of persons, not ideals to be contemplated.
  3. Paul’s says that following these instructions will result in peace.
  4. It is generally true that the New Testament Epistles are more concerned with group cohesiveness than individual spiritual disciplines (although group cohesion almost always relies upon the spiritual health of individual Christians).

Bibliography

Aland, Kurt et al., Novum Testamentum Graece, 28th Edition. (Stuttgart: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 2012).

Arndt, Danker, and Bauer, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000).

Liddell, Henry George et al., A Greek-English Lexicon (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996).

[1] Translated from Kurt Aland et al., Novum Testamentum Graece, 28th Edition. (Stuttgart: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 2012), Php 4:2–9.

[2] There are good reasons for accepting this view. Several Biblical scholars accept this view (Bruce, Barth, Cohick, O’Brien, Fee, and Witherington) as does my pastor, whose judgment about such matters is very well reasoned. The take away of this perspective is essentially that Paul wants us to think about positively virtuous and God honoring things (which elsewhere he clearly does say to do). I totally agree with the ethical idea that comes from the majority interpretation. It is Pauline advice, it is reasonable advice, it is advice that accords with the sort of meditation that has been prescribed throughout the Christian tradition for centuries, and it seems to be advice that helps people who receive cognitive psychological therapy (thinking about different things to manage bad thought patterns). So don’t hear me being mean about people who see the passage in the more traditional way.

 

The life of the mind in early Christianity

This is the best couple of paragraphs from N.T. Wright’s massive two volume tome:

That is the point at which Paul found himself inventing and developing this new discipline we call, in retrospect, ‘Christian theology’. The radically new worldview in which he and his converts found themselves was bound to face the question ‘why’ at every corner, and in order to answer it, and to teach his churches to answer it for themselves, he had to speak of one particular God, and of the world, in a way nobody had done before.

 

This had an important result: the life of the mind was itself elevated by Paul from a secondary social activity, for those with the leisure to muse and ponder life’s tricky questions, to a primary socio-cultural activity for all the Messiah’s people. The interesting question of whether one thinks oneself into a new way of acting or acts oneself into a new way of thinking will, I suspect, continue to tease those who try to answer it (not least because it is of course reflexive: should you answer it by thinking or by acting?).

 

N. T. Wright, Paul and the Faithfulness of God, vol. 4, Christian Origins and the Question of God (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2013), 27.

For the early Christians, philosophy became a way of life. 

Levels of Analysis in the Sermon on the Mount: A brief outline

What is the Sermon on the Mount? How do we read it? What I have in mind is Matthew 5-7. Let’s leave Luke 6 out for now. Below are some potential layers of analysis for understanding the Sermon on the Mount. Now, the most simple way to read it is: hear these words and do them. But to do so requires a life of reflection.

  1. Literary-Rhetorical Levels
    1. The sermon is nested in Matthew’s gospel. So it’s place in Matthew’s story of Jesus must be considered. 
      1. In its context, the Sermon is Jesus’ gospel of the kingdom of God in non-parabolic format. 
      2. It is presented as a layer of evidence that Jesus is the Messiah who has authority.
        1. First because it contains Jesus’ interpretation of the Old Testament (hermeneutical skill). 
        2. Second, because it is presented as truth of the sort the Messiah would teach (divine revelation). 
      3. It is presented as a summary of Jesus’ vision of happiness, righteousness, human perfection, and wisdom. 
      4. As such, the contents are presented as an expression of an idea to be sought, but a constitution to be instantly applied. The guiding metaphor for relating to Jesus in Matthew is of discipleship, not legal judgment. 
      5. It is presented, then, as the foundation upon which the church is built (Matthew 7 and Matthew 16).
      6. It is taught on a mountain, in the hearing of crowds, to disciples who are called to preach the same message. And so it is a retelling of the Moses’ receipt of the law from God on Sinai. 
    2. The sermon, in Matthew, is elaborated upon in the narrative of Matthew in key ways. 
    3. In Matthew, the Sermon is self-consciously intertextual with the Old Testament, so those resonances must be taken into account. 
    4. Though I used to be skeptical of attempts to do this, the Sermon fits quite nicely into Aristotelian rhetorical form. Jesus appeals to commonly accepted facts, begins with an exordium, gives a narration of facts, makes a proposition statement, gives examples, uses a sort of recursive-self referential outline to clarify-elaborate on key terms, and concludes with an emotional call to action.
      1. Looking at the rhetoric can help us understand Jesus’ main point(s).
      2. Looking at the rhetoric can help us understand which parts of the Sermon are appeals to emotion over appeals to fact.
      3. Looking at the rhetoric through the lens of ancient social norms can help us grasp what function the Sermon has in his ministry. 
  2. Theologically
    1. As a book in the Bible, the Sermon is meant, by those who placed it in the canon to be interpreted within the frame work provided by the Bible even in the absence of intertextuality. The golden rule might be be informed by material in the Psalms or the personal covenant in Ruth, for instance. 
    2. Since the canon of Scripture came together in a theological milieu which included discussion of the Trinity, theosis as the goal of salvation, and the Incarnation of the Logos in Jesus, it’s important to discern these themes in the Sermon.
      1. Incarnation: The life is Jesus is necessarily divine revelation because Jesus is God incarnate. But the teaching of Jesus can still be the result of careful human thought and consideration because Jesus is also fully human. Both elements are important to consider. Understanding the human reasoning behind the sermon in how we experience it as divine revelation.
      2. Trinity: The Sermon is presented as the Son making known the culture of the Trinity as instantiated among sinful human beings. See also Matthew 11:26-30. Jesus is
      3. Theosis: Jesus says, in the Sermon, that his disciples will ‘see God,’ ‘be called sons of God,’ and that they should ‘be perfect’ like God. And so the Sermon is about how we approach the being of God as creatures. Jesus also uses the word ‘μακαριος’ which carries the connotation of ‘blissful’ as used in contemporary philosophy to describe the gods. 
  3. Philosophically
    1. As ancient philosophical discourse
      Ancient Greek philosophy (Stoic, Platonic, Aristotelian, and Epicurian) dealt with certain key issues:

      1. Blissfulness/Blessedness- Jesus describes his vision of blessing/bliss in Matthew 5:3-10 and bookends those beatitudes with ‘the kingdom of heaven.’
      2. Virtue – Jesus never uses the word virtue, but his sermon does touch on righteousness and prudence, and these terms are associated with Jewish virtue ethics in contemporary literature. 
      3. The Passions – Jesus never uses this word, but his topics include: anger, lust, hatred, the need for approval, and anxiety. 
      4. Politics – Jesus is dealing with conflict resolution, group solidarity, resource management, and personal piety within the context of a divinely sanctioned community: the kingdom of God. He is, in the Aristotelian sense, producing an ethical foundation for a constitution of people. 
    2. Ancient philosophical discourse tended to refer people to the Logos, but individuals like Parmenides weren’t afraid to claim divine inspiration as a rhetorical technique.
      1. Jesus, while showing his work (he gives reasons for his pronouncements) still places himself in a place of implicit divine authority, ‘I say unto you.’ and ‘I will say to you, depart…’ In this sense, Jesus is operating as philosopher/Prophet, but also as the Logos behind both. 
      2. To bring your mind into closer conformity to the Logos, ancient philosophy recommended philosophical exercises: hiding good deeds, time alone, meditation on the day’s duties to avoid worrying over the future, considering one’s misdeeds, making amends for wrongs done, taking criticism well, keeping promises when inconvenient, and so-on. Jesus does precisely this. 
      3. On the ancient understanding, the Old Testament was/is a body of philosophy (see The Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture by Yoram Hazony). Jesus is furthering that discussion, operating as a voice among many, but also as the Voice.  
    3. Jesus touches, albeit briefly on the topics most germane to human happiness, and so that naturally brings the Sermon into conversation with Christian and non-Christian discourse on metaphysics, psychology, ethics, and politics. 
  4. Sociologically/Historically
    1. In the sermon, we have a window into Jesus’ aims as a player in history (see The Aims of Jesus by Ben Meyer…not enough people read this). 
    2. Historical background (obviously) will give some window into what Jesus was getting at. Particularly in conjunction with rhetorical and literary analyses. In the Sermon are explicit and implicit critiques of other forms of Israelite practice contemporary with Jesus.
    3. If Jesus conceives of his kingdom as a people, in a place, with a king, and a culture, then the Sermon can be conceived of, not merely as ethical or theological discourse, but as strategy. The Sermon includes some aspects of how to appropriately maintain the reputation of God’s people in an honor shame culture with competing strategies for acquiring status within the meta-group of the Roman world. I can think of four items that cover this well: Neyrey’s book Honor and Shame in the Gospel of MatthewThe Social-Science Commentary on the Synoptic GospelsThe Micro-sociology of Charisma, and The Power Tactics of Jesus ChristOther items of interest include Stephen Bram’s Biblical Games with his emphasis on Game Theory applied to biblical narrative and Game Theory and the Humanities: Bridging Two Worlds.

Think Rightly About Yourselves

[This is a repost from 2013 with an additional translation added to the list below]

Text

Λέγω γὰρ διὰ τῆς χάριτος τῆς δοθείσης μοι παντὶ τῷ ὄντι ἐν ὑμῖν μὴ ὑπερφρονεῖν παρ᾽ ὃ δεῖ φρονεῖν ἀλλὰ φρονεῖν εἰς τὸ σωφρονεῖν, ἑκάστῳ ὡς ὁ θεὸς ἐμέρισεν μέτρον πίστεως. (Rom 12:3 BGT)

Translation

Upon first glance the obvious translation/meaning is, “For, I say to all of you through the grace which was given to me, do not think about yourselves more highly than it is necessary to think, but rather think [w/respect to yourselves] in a manner that leads to temperance; each one as God has given a measure of faith. (Romans 12:3)

Other Common Translations:

For I say, through the grace given unto me, to every man that is among you, not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think; but to think soberly, according as God hath dealt to every man the measure of faith. (Rom 12:3 KJV)

 

For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned.  (Rom 12:3 ESV)

 

For by the grace given to me I say to everyone who is among you not to think more highly of yourself than what one ought to think, but to think [sensibly], as God has apportioned a measure of faith to each one. (Rom 12:3 Lexham English Bible)

 

For by the grace given to me I ask every one of you not to think of yourself more highly than you should think, rather to think of yourself with sober judgment on the measure of faith that God has assigned each of you. (Rom 12:3 International Standard Version) [Here, they catch that ‘thinking of yourself’ is implied due to the nature of the contrasted modes of thought.]

 

For by the grace given to me I say to every one of you not to think more highly of yourself than you ought to think, but to think with sober discernment, as God has distributed to each of you a measure of faith.
(Rom 12:3 NET)

Syntactical Comment

Every translation takes the Greek preposition εις to mean “with” and they translate the stative verb (verb about a state of being) adverbially. I’m going against a trend in translations here, but εις rarely means ‘with’ and not ever, that I can think of, with an infinitive. But εις το + [infinitive] often (always?) connotes purpose.  

Paul is contrasting to ways of thinking about yourself. One is haughty, the other is a form of self-reflection that leads to sober-mindedness or temperance. 

Reflections

Paul wants Christians to think about themselves so that they can judge their own capacities soundly. But it’s not just that he wants them to think soundly. It’s that he wants them to think about themselves in a way that leads to sound judgment in interpersonal matters. What this means, if you go on to read the rest of Romans 12, is that we consider just what our gifts are and we use them in a way that is in line with unhypocritical love (Romans 12:9).

This is an interesting way of looking at things. Be utterly realistic about how wretched, weak, and malicious you are (Romans 1-3). Also, be utterly realistic about what God’s grace has done in you (Romans 7-8). Realize that God has a plan that uses even the most dire of circumstances to bring his will to pass (Romans 9-11). Now, use your gifts with circumspection and confidence. That’s what he’s saying, or something like that.

A Recent Translation That Got Things Right

David Bentley Hart Translates the verse:

“For, by the grace given to me, I say to everyone among you not to be more haughtily minded than your thinking ought to be, but rather to let you thinking conduce to sober-mindedness, as God has apportioned a measure of faithfulness to each. (Romans 12:3 DBH NTT)