Friday, February 20, 2009

Theological bullying

Over on the wiki I use as part of my second-year Greek class, I've posted the following discussion about 1 Timothy 2 and doing biblical theology:

As I was translating 1 Timothy 2, I let my mind wander a bit inappropriately, perhaps. When I read the description of God as one πάντας ἀνθρώπους θἐλει σωθῆναι καὶ εἰς ἐπίγνωσιν ἀληθείας ἐλθεῖν in 2.4, my immediate response was to be a bit smug. "See?" I thought to myself, "The Calvinists must not read the Pastoral Epistles as often as they read Calvin's Institutes." Okay . . . a slight exaggeration, but you get the point. I was reading 1 Tim. 2.4 in the context of the Calvinist/Arminian debate about limited atonement, and in that context this passage clearly favors my point of view.

The problem with this, of course, is the same as the problem with the Calvinists' fondness for Ephesians 1 and the language of predestination there: The Calvinist/Arminian debates—all of them—are medieval debates and never form the proper context for reading Scripture. I came back to myself in the immediately following verse: εἷς γὰρ θεός, εἷς καὶ μεσίτης θεοῦ καὶ ἀνθρώπων, which our author clearly presents as the basis for the statement in v 4. Now, how "God is one" (or "There is one God," but I think this obscures the echoes of Deut. 6.4 that I think the text intends) applies to the question of limited atonement is beyond me; I just don't see it. So I have to reevaluate the significance of v 4, even though it so beautifully supported my own theological perspective.

In the undisputed Pauline epistles (esp. in Romans, but elsewhere, too), God's oneness is an important element in Paul's argument that Jews and gentiles are acceptable before God on the same basis, and Torah (which differentiates Jew and gentile and so violates the principle of God's oneness) is not that basis. The gospel is. So when Paul says things like "For there is no distinction, for all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God" (Rom. 3.22–23), or "You are all one in Christ Jesus" (Gal. 3.28), he is talking about both Jews and gentiles, not every individual human.

When reading 1 Timothy, we'll have to make the necessary adjustments for time, place, and the ambiguities surrounding questions of our epistle's authorship. Even so, when we read in v 4 that God wants πάντας ἀνθρώπους to be saved, and then in v 5 the basis for this comment is the oneness of God (compare, among many possible texts, Rom. 3.29–31), I think we are compelled to read this passage in the context of a debate about a national understanding of election (God has chosen this nation or group as his people) rather than a debate regarding the scope of Christ's atonement (for all humanity or only for those whom God predestined and elected unconditionally).

If I'm really going to take the Bible seriously, I don't think we can only pay attention to when others are reading the text in an improper (or at least less proper) context; we also have to be constantly vigilant that we, too, read Scripture in the proper context as best as we can reconstruct it. Sometimes that means acknowledging that a text that seems to support our theology doesn't. This text doesn't oppose my theology, either; it just isn't concerned with the theological debates that in many ways defined the Protestant movement from very early on.

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