Tuesday, September 06, 2016

Potentially justified? Paul, Wolter, universalism and Romans 5:18

Romans 5:18 Ἄρα οὖν ὡς δι᾽ ἑνὸς παραπτώματος εἰς πάντας ἀνθρώπους εἰς κατάκριμα, οὕτως καὶ δι᾽ ἑνὸς δικαιώματος εἰς πάντας ἀνθρώπους εἰς δικαίωσιν ζωῆς·
“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” (NRSV)
Michael Wolter, in commenting on this verse in Der Brief an die Römer (Teilband 1), 356, notes the universal perspective of Paul’s language, and speaks of how it characterises God’s justifying activity. What precisely is that characterisation?

„Sie enthält das Potential zur Rechtfertigung aller Menschen“ (356)


The logic clearly wants to take seriously i) the need for human faith (see Wolter, 357-58). But presumably lurking behind is also a concern to honour ii) other Pauline texts such as Galatians 5:21 (certain actors “will not inherit the kingdom of God”), and iii) the “receiving” spoken of in 5:17 (λαμβάνοντες).

I nevertheless see some problems with this reading.


It follows from his claim that there are two groups which are necessarily ordered according to size, or rather population: All are under condemnation (Group A), but God graciously justifies those who actualise the potential, by having faith in Jesus Christ (Group B). In other words, Group A is larger than Group B.

To rehearse a well-known point, however, from 5:15 onwards, the good stuff (gift, Christ, grace etc.) is contrasted with the bad stuff (Adam, condemnation, trespass etc.). And as Karl Barth noted: this contrast involves “no equilibrium … one may not say: as the trespass, so also is the free gift”. To use contemporary idiom, the gift is way more awesome than the trespass! (Or, to use German contemporary idiom: “Der gute Stoff ist sowas von übelst viel geiler als das abgewrackte Zeug”. If Barth were alive today, friends, just maybe that’s what he would say.)

But if the condemnation is certain, not potential, how can one speak of that which is only potential in terms of “grace abounding all the more” (Rom 5:20)? If it isn’t about the size of the groups, then one will be forced to emphasise another distinguishing aspect of Group B, in order to make it clear that grace super abounds.

Is that distinguishing aspect--necessary in order to make the contrast Paul generates in 5:15ff sensible--forthcoming? Of course, one may offer philosophical justifications (so Anselm, for example), but is it exegetically obvious? Perhaps one could focus on the nature of the act, or the identity of the actor? But does Paul’s argument do this?


And of course, as it often pointed out, the Wolter-style treatment of this verse at the very least disrupts (even if, given contextual matters, does not negate) the parallels in 5:18. After all, Paul doesn’t say that one man’s trespass “potentially” lead to condemnation for all, which would better maintain the balance. And of course, the πάντας … πάντας (“all … all”) parallel really becomes, in this reading, “all … somewhat less than all”. Bearing in mind (A), this is surely not a reading without problems.


What is more, should human faith be understood in the terms Wolter imagines, in this Pauline argument, especially given its absence from the discussion. This, indeed, leads to another are of hot debate in Pauline studies, but some will argue that it places faith into a theological argument that effectively displaces the revelation of God in Christ and by the Spirit, subordinating such Christian rhetoric under another (idolatrous) theological system.


Let us not forget that a straightforward reading of this verse is not to isolate it from the rest of a clearly eschatologically dualist Paul. After all, Paul writes in this letter:

  • “For there is no distinction, since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; the are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (3:22-24 NRSV – see Jens Adam on this verse, and how “all” functions); 
  • “For God has imprisoned all in disobedience so that he may be merciful to all” (11:32 NRSV).
And there are plenty of other passages besides which point in a similar direction.

Whether this means that a) Paul was a universalist, b) Paul’s theology is compatible with (Christian) universalism or c) what Paul writes here is compatible with universalism are key questions, and they need to be brought into discussion with exegesis of 2 Thess 1 and so on.

The only point I want to make here is that Paul does not write here that “just as one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all, so one man’s act of righteousness potentially leads to justification and life for all”


At 9/07/2016 12:41 AM, Anonymous Kevin Davis said...

Then how do you interpret Gal 5:21, as you note? It seems that Gal 5:21 (and Eph 5:5 et al.) indicates a less-than-all or, at least, a potential-less-than-all in regard to the gift of salvation. In that case, the trespass has a known universality in contrast to the potential (unknown) universality of the gift.

At 9/08/2016 5:19 AM, Blogger Unknown said...

The answer would have to be that they stop doing the things of the flesh. The same type is list is found at 1Cor 6:9-10, and is followed by Paul saying "and such were some of you." These are therefore not "will never inherit the kingdom" lists but "will not inherit the kingdom while they walk in these things" lists.

At 9/08/2016 1:20 PM, Blogger Jason Pratt said...

Agreed with Michael: as long as people do the things in the Pauline warning lists, they don't inherit. When they stop doing them, and learn from their child-discipline and grow into mature adults (spiritually speaking) they inherit. This has more than a little bearing on Paul's idea of inheritance and the son-placement / adoption, as in Galatians not incidentally!

But there is no conceptual contradiction between Paul testifying that those who do X shall not inherit, and also testifying that in effect all shall come eventually to stop doing X (and even to honor/value the justice of their whole-ruination by God, since Chris mentioned 2 Thess 1), receiving the gracious gift of justice (righteousness) as qualified a verse earlier in 5:17, and so shall inherit.

Also, hi, Chris! I haven't popped in for a while! {g}


At 12/15/2016 6:07 AM, Blogger Edwardtbabinski said...


Jason, Chris et al, I wonder how certain one can be about universalism being true based on passages from the Bible. It seems to involve one in all sorts of interpretive ingenuity, from interpreting away all the OT passages that declare man is dust and returns to dust in the end--Sheol being everyone's destination--to universalistic sounding NT passages where heaven is everyone's eventual destination, and of course there are even more damnationist sounding NT passages, the latter being quite well attested in apocalyptic literature of the inter-testamental period just prior to the writing of the NT.

Also, have either of you debated Jewish scholars, or even the Christian professor and podcaster, Dale Tuggy, about why he believes there is no such thing as the traditional Christian "Trinity?"


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