You have baggage** and so do I.
We all have it and we bring it with us when we read the Bible. I had a lot of baggage that came with me from my Baptist upbringing. Over the years I have had to sort through a lot of that baggage, unpacking it and jettisoning some of it as I learned better what the Bible has to say. I sometimes feel like one of those people on those shows that make de-cluttering someone’s house a form of television entertainment (but without as much entertainment).
I still carry with me a lot of presuppositions about what the Bible must mean. I know my understanding of Romans has a great deal to do what I assume Paul is trying to say and what questions he is trying to answer. I get concerned about those assumptions. I wonder how much of what I understand scripture to mean is what was intended and how much I am reading into it.
When Martin Luther championed Paul he did so with at least two issues in mind. Luther was a man wracked with guilt, at least early on. He built his life trying to be a good monk, and he was a very good monk, but it didn’t work. He still needed desperately to know if God could accept him. It all began, so the story goes, that when lightning struck nearby him during a storm he became obsessed with his own mortality. He needed assurances. Sola fide became both a Reformation rallying cry and the solution to Luther’s need to know that God would accept him as righteous enough for saving. Salvation came by grace through faith not by being a good monk, no matter how good. For Luther the existential dilemma was critical to salvation. One had to pass through that dark night of the soul, as it were, to reach the light on the other side.
I tend to agree with Luther on this point. I am not convinced Luther got it perfectly right, but I am a Christian existentialist.
The other issue was the famous social and political context in which he lived and struggled. Luther saw his own attempts at righteousness as being akin to what he saw as the Jew’s struggle to keep the law. He was immersed in a world of law keepers – what he experienced as the Roman Catholic church. Luther railed not merely against indulgences, but the understanding that under girded the existence of such theology. He saw a significant portion of Catholic theology being fundamentally the same as the Jew’s faith in keeping the law as the means to attain salvation. I am not convinced Luther made the right connection here.
Both of these perspectives – the need to remove a personally debilitating guilt and a corrective to Catholic piety – colored Luther’s lenses as he interpreted Paul’s letter to the Romans. Protestantism inherited these perspectives and has promoted them down through the ages. The question is whether Paul had them in mind, or at least at the forefront of his mind, as he penned his letter.
I am not so sure Paul was directly addressing, or even concerned with the same perspectives as Luther. He may have been, and I still tend to see those concerns in Romans, but I wonder if that’s just more baggage. Was Paul’s primary concern for writing his letter to emphasize the solution to individual guilt or instead in addressing the need for harmony between Greek/Roman Christians (formerly pagan) and Jewish Christians in light of an entirely new kind of faith community – one that incorporates both Jew and Greek? And/or was Paul’s primary concern to convey a new reality based on faith without piety, and therefore to trounce the felt need to keep the law or, instead, to merely put the law into its proper perspective? In other words, did Luther misunderstand Paul?
I don’t know the answer, but I am inclined to think that he did. I will say that if Luther had it wrong, or even just overly emphasized certain aspects of Paul’s message, then maybe we have been missing Paul’s message all these years – assuming we have been under the spell of Luther’s axioms as has been so much of Protestant history.
*A version of this post was previously posted at a now defunct blog.
**I don’t mean luggage, though you may have that too.