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.

 

[T]he most persuasive case for Christianity lies in the overall coherence and human relevance of its world view.
~ Arthur F. Holmes, Contours of a World View, 1983.
I have spent all of my life within a Christian sub-culture of one kind or another. I was raised a Baptist, “escaped” that rather specific world (but brought a lot of it with me), and now consider myself somewhat of a cynical evangelical. In some ways I prefer the moniker Christ-follower. I also like Christian Existentialist for various reasons. Unlike many Christians (though I could be wrong) whom I have met over the years, I have always been a fan of the “thinking Christian” approach to faith. I grew up, in a sense, with the likes of C.S. Lewis (Mere Christianity, The Problem of Pain, The Weight of Glory, etc.), Francis Schaeffer (How Shall We Then LiveEscape from Reason, The God Who is There, etc.), and Josh McDowell (Evidence That Demands a Verdict, etc.). All those books, and many more, I had read by the end of my senior year in high school. Therefore quotes like the one above from Dr. Holmes have rung true for me for most of my life. But I wonder if it really makes complete sense.
 
The issue I have with Holmes’ quote is not the words “overall coherence” or “human relevance,” but the word “persuasive.” I have spent much of my life interested in (what I believe to be) the fact of Biblical Christianity‘s coherence and human relevance. But even with all my study over the years I have never been truly persuaded by the arguments because they were good arguments rigorously laid out and defended. What I have come to realize is that I was already predisposed to be persuaded, and would have been even if the arguments had been (and sometimes were) poorly made by fumbling pastors and Christian intellectual poseurs. The persuasive case for Christianity is not found in argument, but in the mysterious work being done, for whatever unknown reason, in the heart of the individual who, though even a hater of God finds her/himself drawn (even as if against one’s better judgment) to what the writers of the Christian scriptures called the Gospel.
 
Still, there is great value in digging into the nature and claims of the Christian World View, to lay it out, pick it apart, and see what’s really there. Christians inherit a great many dogmas (major and minor), and sub-cultures to boot. We should always ask if what we “know” to be true is, in fact, something other than the truth, something we got from our culture or elsewhere. We must always be wary of the tendency in all of us to impose our desires on what we call our faith. I want to dig into these things. That’s what I hope to do with this blog.
 
FYI: I get the name satellite from a 1540s definition, “follower or attendant of a superior person,” according to the Online Etymology Dictionary.