Thursday, November 30, 2006

Was Paul a Spiritual Failure? (Romans № 20)

Welcome to one of the strangest sections of Paul's letter to the Romans! I believe this passage warns us to seek to understand what the Scripture means, not necessarily what the Scripture appears to say. Consider Paul's conundrum:
For we know that the law is spiritual, but I am of the flesh, sold under sin. I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree with the law, that it is good. So now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? (Rom 7.14-24 ESV)
Okay, are we to take from this passage that Paul, as he is dictating his letter to Tertius (16.22), is revealing to the Romans his own deep spiritual bankruptcy? I mean, if the Apostle Paul was such a miserable failure as a Christian, how uplifting would that have been to the Church at Rome who gathered and heard someone read such a depressing letter of abject spiritual defeat? Was Paul a Christian wasteland of failure?

If Paul is speaking of his present spiritual condition, what would that tell us of the overcoming Christian life? It wouldn't exactly cause us to break out in an impromptu singing of Victory in Jesus would it?

Thank God, I believe there is another answer, one that fits quite nicely into the context that Paul already has been expounding on; I believe he is speaking of his previous spiritual frustrations under Torah, before he came to faith in Jesus Christ. Rabbi Saul of Tarsus had a problem obeying—from the heart—the very Torah he espoused.

For example, notice how he speaks of law in this passage. Paul the Christian apostle never drove people to Torah; he drove them to Christ. He isn't speaking of the gospel, here. Rather, he is speaking of obedience to Moses' Law.

If that's so, then why does he use the present tense that makes it sound like he's speaking of his current condition at the time of writing? The Greek "historical present" offers us an answer.

Put simply, in Hellenistic (New Testament) Greek, a writer could recount a past event using the present tense when he wanted to write forcefully and dramatically.

Let me give you a biblical example from John 14.8a:

λεγει αυτω φιλιππος κυριε...

literally, it means, "He says to him [Philip], 'Lord...'"

or, in more grammatical English,

"Philip says to him, 'Lord...'"

However, your favorite translation may say,

"Philip said to him, 'Lord...'"

Why switch the Greek present tense, "he says" with the past "he said"? Because that's standard English. John recalled an event that happened decades ago. Still, the aged apostle uses the historical present to write in forceful Greek.

You'll find this feature in all four gospels.

We English speakers use a form of the historical present today. Let me create a story that allegedly happened last week. Here's the fictional scenario:
"I'm standing in the Charleston Town Center at the food court. This lady—a perfect stranger—walks up to me and says, 'I want to give you something.' She then hands me $100 and then walks away!"
Since this fictional account is set in the previous week, the past tense would have been appropriate:
"I stood in the Charleston Town Center at the food court. This lady—a perfect stranger—walked up to me and said, 'I want to give you something.' She then handed me $100 and then walked away!"
The past tense is appropriate, but using the present tense to retell a past experience is also appropriate; it's more dramatic.

Okay, time to wrap up this long entry. Suffice to say, I think Paul is speaking of his failure to keep Torah from the heart, and not speaking of a present failure to keep faith in the Spirit.