Tuesday, June 17, 2008

A Reader’s Question

A reader of this blog, Terry, sent me a question the other day and I thought it would be interesting to hear the response of others. He wrote:

"I've been leading a series of studies on the Nicene Creed in my church homegroup. This week, I was preparing for 'crucified under Pontius Pilate' by looking at different models of atonement. As part of this, I wanted to look at the meaning of hilastērion in Romans 3:22b-25a when something struck me (so to speak).

The NRSV of this text reads: 'For there is no distinction, since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith.'

It seems to me that people often refer to this statement as pointing to the universal sinfulness of humanity; but is there also a statement here implying universal salvation? While 'all have sinned … they are now justified'.

Should the 'all' be understood as referring to Jews and Gentiles, which would mean the 'they' refers to Jews and Gentiles; or does the 'all' refer to all people, which would imply that 'all' people 'are now justified'? And how does this passage relate to 3:22a, which mentions specifically those who believe? Commentaries seem to focus more on the meaning of hilastērion than anything else, which is so mid-noughties Evangelicalist.

How should this passage be read best?"

A great issue is raised here. I must admit, I had missed the potential universalist implications of this verse before, and I was reminded, of course, of Romans 5:18 ("Therefore just as one man's trespass led to condemnation for all, so one man's act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all") and Romans 11:32 ("For God has imprisoned all in disobedience so that he may be merciful to all"). In most of these issues I would refer to Cranfield's commentary on Romans. I simply note that the 'All' language could be used in Qumran in such a way that it didn't actually mean 'all individual people' (cf. Gudrun Holtz Damit Gott sei alles in allem [de Gruyter, 2007], for a related discussion). Also, the phrase 'since all have sinned' starts with 'for there is no distinction' in 3:22 ('ouv ga,r evstin diastolh,'). In Romans 10:12 we read exactly the same phrase, simply expanded upon: 'ouv ga,r evstin diastolh. VIoudai,ou te kai. {Ellhnoj' ('for there is no distinction between Jew and Greek'). So I would suggest that Paul's horizon of thought does necessitate a 'both Jew and Greek' gloss. However, the hermeneutical movements are not thereby forever frozen.


At 6/17/2008 12:31 AM, Anonymous Carl said...

As a stand alone text, yes the universal implications do emerge; but, for me, the the potential universalism is contingent upon the condition noted in 3.22a: "the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus for all who believe." Logically, it is similar to Jesus' statement in Matthew 7 regarding to the "roads". The narrow road, while narrow, is (universally) open to all; but not all will enter. In the same way, for Paul, the "way" to justification is available to all; but all will not choose.

At 6/17/2008 3:13 AM, Anonymous dan said...

Yes, I agree. Context would suggest that Paul is thinking 'all' means something like 'representatives from all ethnic groups' but (and this is a big but -- the kind I like so much!) there is nothing within the context of this passage to suggest that the 'all' must be so limited. It leaves the door open for a much wider form of universalism.

Of course, we need to recall that the more limited sense of 'all' (Jews & Gentiles) was already a pretty scandalous assertion. That such a development seems obvious to us, in our readings of the OT, is largely due to the fact that we read the OT in light of the NT. For those in Paul's day, I suspect the Scriptures appeared to be far less clear on the subject of the inclusion of Gentiles (especially Gentiles who didn't have to practice the 'works of the Law'!).

I think that this is an important observation because I think the same thing occurs when we discuss the broader form of universalism today. The Scriptures don't strike us all that clear -- in fact, many argue against universalism by posing some Scriptures against others -- but I suspect that, on the day when God becomes 'all in all', the universalistic thread will be the one that triumphs. That is precisely the sort of scandal that seems to fit well with the trajectory of the biblical narrative.

At 6/17/2008 5:38 AM, Anonymous Weekend Fisher said...

From my POV, I have never quite understood why Paul's proclaiming the good news of forgiveness to all, and Christ's sacrifice for all, would be problematic for anyone of any particular theological stance (other than TULIP). What gives?

Unless we are into some sort of soteriology where "Christ died for you" equals "you will be in heaven" (a transaction atonement, which doesn't strike me as very sound), then the universal reality of Christ's sacrifice does not automatically equate with everyone being blessed in eternity.

Take care & God bless
Anne / WF

At 6/17/2008 3:25 PM, Anonymous Jason Pratt said...

Speaking as one of the local orthodox universalists, I wouldn't consider this verse set to be evidence for or against universalism--it can be legitimately read as consonant with pretty much any soteriology (except what might be called automatic universalism, which as an orthodox theologian I don't advocate anyway. Anne's comment is pertinent here.)

I think even hardcorps TULIPS wouldn't have a problem with this, once verse 22a is taken into account; for the grammar there, as far as I can tell, could be read to mean, "to all [the ones who are believing] and upon all the ones who are believing." But it could also be read grammatically the other way (as Arms and Kaths would have it), too. The difference would have to be settled by appeal to larger contexts.

(Appeal to textual crit arguments wouldn't suffice. The majority of early texts read "to/into all" without reference to "upon all". Only three references, two of them not even directly scriptural texts--Pelagius and John Damscene--read {epi pantas} instead; though a number of important textual variants do have both phrases. The Textus Receptus follows the combination of both readings. If the UBS/Nestle-Aland reconstruction is correct, though, the verse would still read {eis pantas tous pisteuontas}, and that would appear to weigh things a little more toward Calv/Kath than Arm/Kath, by removing a possible distinction between 'to' and 'upon' all. However, Arms would agree just as quickly as Calvs or Kaths that the completion of the justification requires a willing enaction on the part of the sinner; and St. Paul is clearly enough talking about that here, whichever way the soteriology otherwise goes.)

The odd grammatic form of {hilaste_rion}, by the way, probably points as a reference to the propitiatory shelter of God, i.e. the throne of God as mercy-seat. cf Luke 18:13, the tax-collector/traitor begging God to make a propitiatory shelter for him, the sinner. (Also, topically though the specific reference isn't used, cf RevJohn 22, where the water of life flows from under the throne of God out through the never-closed gates of the New Jerusalem so that those outside who still love and practice their sins may drink of the river freely, without cost, and wash themselves, so obtaining permission to enter the city and be healed by the leaves of the tree under which the river flows--for which purpose the Spirit both exhorts them and exhorts those who have already been saved to join the Spirit in exhorting those who haven't yet been saved from their sins and their sinning.)

The grammar in that whole portion is rather more difficult and peculiar than English translations commonly make it out to be. A more accurate (if more eye-crossing {g}) translation would be, from v 21 through 26:

"Yet now, apart from law, a fair-togetherness of God is [completely] manifest (having been attested by the law and the prophets); even a fair-togetherness of God through Jesus Christ's faith, into all who are believing. For there is no distinction--for all have sinned and are wanting of [or yearning for] the glory of God--being [therefore] freely made just in His joy [or, being made just in his freely given joy], through the deliverance that is in Christ Jesus, Whom God proposed for a propitiatory-shelter through the faith [of God?] in His blood, to a display of the fair-togetherness of Him because of the passing-over of the penalties of sins which occurred beforehand in the forebearance of God; toward the display of His fair-togetherness in the current era, into Him: to be [both] just and One Who makes just the one who is of Jesus--on faith!"


At 6/17/2008 7:20 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

... they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith.'

Wouldn't "effective through faith"
negate a universalistic reading of the text?


At 6/17/2008 7:45 PM, Anonymous Jason Pratt said...


No, it wouldn't negate any of several kinds of orthodox universalism. It would only negate the kind of automatic universalism (which doesn't require cooperation with God at all for salvation) Anne was critiquing.


At 6/18/2008 1:25 AM, Anonymous Edward T. Babinski said...


Paul also wrote in Rom. that as by one man sin entered into the world so by one man grace has also entered it, even "more abundantly." But this doesn't make logical sense. Adam's sin damns the whole human race to an eternity of punishment, but the best God and His grace can do in return is save a few? Is that really grace triumphing "more abundantly" than the sin of Adam? Paul is playing up the rhetoric while missing the simply mathematical logic, namely that his words exceed the truth. And the truth for most people is bloody awful if eternal punishment is IT. But that's the way a cultist leader's rhetoric works. It's hypnotizingly beautiful, no?

"Grace" also simply means divine favor, that's all, like picking sides for basketball.

Paul even has the gall to cite Isaiah about God being the potter and making some pots for honor and others for dishonor (chamber pots?!). Pretty disgusting, but it fits yet again with Paul as a fanatical religious cult leader who wanted nothing more than to spread his particular metaphysical views, and scare people and control them via such views, not personally control them, just to see his frightening memes blossom and take over people souls like the invasion of the body snatchers so "his Gospel" won't be forgotten.

I don't want to repeat mysef here since I've already mentioned some other cult-leader characteristics of Paul elsewhere on this blog, but "taking the Lord's supper the wrong way leads to God cursing people with illnesses, even death," "best not to touch a woman, celibacy is best, marry only to avoid burning in lust all the time," save all the energy for "spreading the Gospel, serving the cause," perpetuating the meme. And of course, "cursed be him who does not believe" like at the end of 1 Cor. anathema. Cast them out so the devil may destroy their flesh, and they come crawling back, humbled and even more brainwashed than before. Typical cultists. Effective too, all the fear, all the promises of things not seen, and puffing people up to think they have "God" inside them, leading them into knowledge of the faith, the minutia of biblical texts, spouting and memorizing scripture like becoming human copy machines.

At 6/18/2008 2:37 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Edward t. Babinski said: "Poor Billy, years of preaching the exclusive need to come to Jesus or face armageddon and eternal hell, and now he shrugs and says, "um, I don't know."

I would say Billy became much wiser. Unlike most believers, he realizes that he is not God...or a theologian.

At 6/18/2008 3:21 PM, Anonymous Jason Pratt said...

{{Paul is playing up the rhetoric while missing the simply mathematical logic}}

Well, somebody here is. Otherwise there wouldn't be much point to painting St. Paul as a totally self-contradictory cult leader and also bothering to treat the universalistic passages/interpretations as if they're worth anything in themselves (much less quoting various exegetes and theologians who think Paul isn't just being a self-contradictory cult leader but who take the elements of hope of universal salvation from sin in Paul as the key to interpreting the meaning of his statements on condemnation.)

It's very telling when you present Billy Graham as having become "more humble" with age; and then proceed to mock him anyway. That's "playing up the rhetoric".


At 6/23/2008 9:45 AM, Anonymous Terry said...

Thanks for posting this, Chris; and thanks to everyone who's responded. I won't dare to mention my question about Matthew 25:31-46!


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