An old friend of mine, now passed into Heaven, started to say this in relationship to his sometimes troubled family, in the last quarter of his life, “I just had to take responsibility for the whole thing…” That was the seed for a new reading of the Gospel for me, a new way to read Romans, which is a different emphasis than the way Augustine, or Martin Luther and Reformation figures read it. It is closer to the reading of “The New Perspective on Paul,” or what Peter Leithart has termed justification: “a deliverdict.”
The Reformation doctrine of justification by faith, was a legal doctrine, but, much of the application of it, especially for Luther, was psychological. Luther lived under a cloud of condemnation from God. This was the result of the “new inwardness” which was itself the fruit of the Gospel. From the very early medieval time forward (one sees this inwardness clearly in Augustine’s Confessions), inwardness begins to spread outward, and by Luther’s time, it is starting to be the possession of everyman and had become “democratized.”
A further development of this is “horizontal justification.” Luther’s doctrine was “vertical justification.” It freed him from condemnation from above, from God. But, vertical justification has further application and leads to horizontal justification. This is a further development. Paul asks the rhetorical question: “If God be for me, then who can be against me…?” Paul goes on to declare that nothing in the created order can now condemn us (Romans 8:31-39). This is socially transformational, and it is the foundation for the creation of a psychological and sociological world, as opposed to a theological world.
That is the world we now inhabit.
What is becoming clear is that it is impossible in our psychological age to solve the problems of a psychological age with more psychology. This is just an application of Gödel’s Theorum. Every set will generate its own conundrums and self contradictions. You cannot solve the problems generated within a set from that set. They can only be solved by importing elements from the set above it. Psychological problems of inwardness cannot be solved with more inwardness and more psychology. So, very briefly, where do we go?
It seems every time God wants the world to be “born again,” He pulls out the book of Romans. How did Augustine read Romans, and just how revolutionary was it? Romans 5 was almost the central locus of his whole theology. It was the story of Adam and of Original Sin. In cultural context, what did that mean to Augustine? He turned Roman thinking inside-out. First, we have a declaration of the radical unity of the entire human race. All versions of paganism have piecemeal accounts of where human beings came from, and many or most of these accounts are tribal. Each tribe, or at largest, each empire, were created separately. Romans 5 gives a unitary account of the creation of the entire race from one original couple. But beyond that is the problem of fallenness, or of sin and human imperfection. Romans 5 gives an account of the fall of everyone in the fall of Adam. And, outside of the Bible, insoluable ethical conundrums arise for every people in their attempts to account for good and evil. The Romans could never solve the problem of the Magnificient Man versus Hubris. One was to aim to be Magnificient, but only just enough (the Golden Mean). Too much magnificence and you will offend the even more magnificient gods who will now determine to destroy you and punish you for overstepping your bounds (“imitate me, but not too much”) The greatest virtue was pride, but the greatest danger was hubris. One did not want to incur rivalry with the gods. This is the source of all ancient tragedy.
Now Augustine turned this on its head, and took the primary virtue (pride) and said that it was the primary sin, the original sin. What was seen as the highest virtue had now become the highest sin. And, the downfall of the ancient world by his time was despair at a collapsing empire. But, Augustine also said that despair was the result of, and a corollary to pride. But, for the magnificent pagan, even despair could be transformed into a virtue by resulting in a magnificent, and proud, suicide. By the 5th century, A.D., everything was becoming vicious circles. One thinks here of the ethos of the 20th century Spanish painter, Pablo Picasso, as a late Roman pagan, telling his children and grandchildren that his death would result in their suicides, because they would be unable to survive without his magnificence being in their presence– and several, an ex-wife, a longtime mistress, and a grandson, did in fact, commit suicide.1Everyone could kill themselves in a magnificent orgy of self destruction “to show the gods…”, and everyone else. But, I suspect that by Augustine’s time, long before, it had stopped being “magnificent,” and had just became maudlin and stupid and boorish.
Augustine also gave a future with his biblical theology of The City of God, and the gift of linear time. In terms of Romans 5, the world is moving from Adam, to the first advent of Christ, to fulfillment and the 2nd advent. Rome had always lived with ancient cyclical time, but now the circles were smaller and smaller, and they were tightening increasingly, to a hangman’s noose. The world began to learn the liberation of believing in orginal sin as opposed to fate and magificience, and of linear time. Romans 5 was a liberation.
In a later age, Luther was delivered from guilt and control on the part of the church with justification by faith. As a monk, God hated him for his sin, and nothing was enough to deliver him. The whole penitential sacramental system was unable to deliver him. The church condemned him, the church said it could release him; but it could not. He was delivered through the revelation of “justification by faith.” The effect was, in part, psychological. He was immune to the condemnation of the church, and to the Pope condemning him to eternal perdition because he had learned that in Christ he was justified, and therefore immune to control.
Now, we are all psychologists, and we have all of the problems of a psychological, and even further, a sociological age (sociology is the psychology of the group). The problems of a psychological and sociological age cannot be solved psychologically, or sociologically. What will God do now, and with what emphasis will we now read Romans?
It is notable that in every collapsing company, in every marriage that is ending in divorce, in every family in which the children are dysfunctioning all over America and the world, each one of these collapsing institutions are filled with completely perfect people. Everyone knows what is wrong–with everyone else. But insofar as that person is concerned, an elaborate and detailed analysis can be provided as to how every single action that might be the subject of another’s sword, is the only possible action that could possibly have been taken because of “this or that” in that other accusing person. Every accusation has a perfect counter accusation that provides justification for what one was accused of in the first place. (Every action produces a perfect counter action–Every accusation produces a perfect mirror image counter accusation, which in turn produces another perfect counter-counter reaction, and on to eternity) It turns out that nobody is responsible for anything, and the wheels cannot even engage each other.
I first remember the beginning of the “yell your psycho-analysis at each other” genre of television. The first show with this motif was the police drama, Hill Street Blues. Every character had the unction of an angry Hebrew prophet, yelling (one always yells, everybody yells) their psycho-analysis of everybody else around whenever something goes wrong, and somebody is now to be held to account. Every Hebrew prophet only yells at other Hebrew prophets, with every prophesy provoking a counter prophesy, which then provokes a counter-counter prophesy. Nobody and nothing, ever changes. Every character is set in stone existing only to psycho-analyse everyother character (there is no other reason for life!). This has now spread from the new non-Dragnet cop shows (“Just the facts m’am”) that have now become the new super sophisticated 5th Ave. Freudianized cops, to now all the doctor shows. House on House subsequently psycho-analysed and was psycho-analysed, multiple times in every episode.
However, at the end of every show, even though no character ever, ever changed because of the magnificent (and free!) psychoanalysis that were yelled constantly across the screen, the crime is always solved perfectly, and the disease is always magnificently conquered. Never mind that in a real police station where everybody yelled all the time, all the cops would have killed each other long ago (and become the new killer criminals these shows are always about) and if just one of House’s shenanigans ever happened in any real hospital, he would be fired and the hospital sued for a kitrillion dollars. But, on television, the work gets done.
The one place the shows are accurate is that nobody ever, ever changes as a result of multiple psycho-analysis.
Psychology has now delivered us from all responsibility, and shifted all of it to “the other.” Nobody is responsible for anything, and curiously the effect of our being psychologized is that we are all now perfect. It sounds like paradise unless one bothers to look at the collapsing and failing institutions that are all peopled by nothing but perfect people. How strange and paradoxical. Everyone is perfect and yet everyone, and everything is a mess and is falling apart.
Here is a dialogue that could be on any of these shows;
“I now understand how it is that your complexes have caused you to have done the terrible things we see all around us, which of course in your blindness to your reaction to what your father did to you, you blame on me.”
And it descends…
The other says,”Yes, it is all so clear to me now. You are actually blaming me, and the source of your blaming me, as well as your boorish, lazy and stupid behavior are your homophobic, sexist, racist attitudes that you refuse to acknowledge to anyone, and even yourself.”
“Well, what you see as my homophobic, sexist and racist actions are all a projection of your Patriarchal Western Civilizational complex inherited from generations of western white male modes of oppression, which I have escaped.”
“I can see quite clearly that what you perceive of as my Western Civilizational complex is your reaction to my inherent tribal warrior qualities that threaten you in your hatred of me and your pro-anti-pro-feminist reactionary Amazon Complex…”
…And on and on…
How does hell work? Every action from the Fall onward is a tragic action. Aristotle says that tragedy is prompted by a small action which unleashes a torrent of consequences that seem all out of proportion to the original action. Think of Shakespeare’s King Lear. All that Lear did was not listen to his one faithful and honest daughter, and instead listen to flattery. That is all. By play’s end, everyone is dead. More to the point, all that Adam and Eve did is eat an apple (or whatever the fruit was), and the whole world is dead. But, that is not so strange. That is how it is now. Aristotle is quite right. If I stand in a dry forest on a hot August day, in my native Colorado, and do the little intsy-weantsy act of striking a match and dropping it on the ground, the consequences can be: one hundred thousand acres burned, the untold animal pain of unreleased livestock as well as wild animals being trapped, sixty-seven houses burned to the ground, as well as countless buildings, hundreds, even thousands of fire fighters being called out with airplanes, helicopters, etc. etc. etc. All of this mayhem is from merely striking and dropping a match. Unless this is Bill Gates or Ray Kroc, there is no way he can repay if called to restitution. Let me suggest that post-modernism is more nearly grasping that every action is now a tragic action. This may explain hell (an incomprehensible doctrine–eternal suffering for what appears to be finite sin). Every action unleashes a torrent of consequences that, even if finite, are so immense, that they perhaps are infinite. The damage is so huge that one can only repay…after an eternity? No man is now adequate to anything. He cannot do good. Every action is like that small match (if we could see the deepest truth)
To “fix” this would require more than Adam is capable of, far more. Even Atlas could not fix it. Remember, Atlas Shrugged, and the world fell off his shoulders. If even Atlas (or Arnold Schwarzenegger) cannot do this, how can I? It would take the Son of God Himself to reverse this. Hence, he came.
This is my “new” reading of Romans, with this different emphasis. Justification is my standing in the place of Adam with the infinite shambles all around me, and then accepting responsibility for it all. Now that is different from accepting “blame” which is psychological. It is accepting responsibility for it in Christ, which is a dogma to be believed rather than an experience to feel. In that place of responsibility, I am helpless to reverse or do anything with the shambles (my wife, children, finances, company, nation, Western Civilization and it’s sins, where ever my responsibility extends) In that place, I accept responsibility and then place my faith in Jesus Christ as my “stand in.” He paid. He now begins to reverse things…probably slowly. He now begins a reverse cascading. Now small things begin to yield good, and it cascades. A prayer begins to have results, a word said, a letter written, a touch on one of the children’s shoulders, an affirmation of his wife, the extending of a hand to someone of another race, whatever, begins to cascade to do levels of good that were unimaginable. My responsibility begins to bear fruit. How often men lament, “I don’t know what to do…” This is the consequence of the fall, and women hate it.
Responsibility is not blame. Blame is psychological and does not escape the terrain of cause/effect in this world. Responsibility is accepting consequences, even if not my fault in any direct sense and trusting in the justifying power of God to put it right. “I have to take it all into myself, and accept all responsibility for all that has happened.”
All of this is entirely in keeping with both the parable of the mustard seed, and the parable of the leaven. The Gospel is a reversed cascading. It is also compatable with this wonderful quote I found from R. J. Rushdoony, a number of years ago:
“When we are Christians, to the extent to any degree we are faithful to the gospel, we are bigger than ourselves. And that is why whether they are Arminian, Roman Catholic, or Calvinist, people who are truly serving the Lord are bigger than their own thinking, bigger than their own faith. We transcend ourselves. And that is the glory of the gospel. It enables us to do more than we can do. It is the grace of God working through us. It is not that we teach different gospels; we are trying to teach the same gospel even though at times our emphasis will be a warped one, a limited one, a partial one. All the same, God can use it”.
That is my new reading of Romans chapter 5.
Richard Bledsoe is a Theopolis Fellow and works as a chaplain in Boulder, Colorado.
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