Friday, September 07, 2007

Contemporary Boundary Markers

As far as I can tell, Dunn is correct that the primary issue in Romans and Galatians is the Jewish boundary markers of circumcision and the kosher laws. (I've long thought this--even before I knew there was a New Perspective.) Good deeds enter into the discussion, but don’t seem to be the primary flash point for Paul’s letters. But Dunn comes up short, in my mind, when he tries to make Paul’s concept of justification more about Jewish/Gentile relations, than about an individual’s relationship to God.

I live in a context where most Catholic Christians I encounter seem to be relying upon the particular “boundary markers” of Catholicism for their justification before God. Ask the typical Catholic why he or she should expect to find God’s favor at the judgment and the answer is typically along the lines of, “I’ve been baptized, attend mass occasionally (perhaps not as often as I should) and I haven’t killed anyone.” In other words, they are relying on their identity with the appointed vehicle of God’s grace (the Church), demonstrated by their participation in its liturgical boundary markers (baptism, the Eucharist), and the fact that they are generally a decent person. This sort of logic seems to hold for many Protestant high-church Christians as well.

Maybe I'm just reading my 21st-century context back into the first century discussion, but it seems to me that Paul’s arguments in Romans and Galatians are directed against just such a person. Paul’s Jewish interlocutor is basing his hope of final vindication upon his identity with the divinely appointed vehicle of God’s grace (Israel), demonstrated by his participation in its national boundary markers (circumcision and kosher laws) and the fact that he is generally a decent person (adheres to the basic morality of the Torah).

But for Paul, morality and external identification with the vehicle of God’s grace does not automatically grant one a participation in God’s eschatological vindication. Paul’s primary point in both Romans and Galatians is that neither adherence to the Torah—much less good deeds in general—are capable of overcoming the corruption of original sin. The Torah can only command; it can’t enable. A Jew is not a Jew who is one outwardly, through a circumcision done by men. Rather a true Jew is one who has been made such through the circumcision of the heart, by the hands of God.

Paul’s opponents may not have been legalist who were trying to “earn their salvation” through works of supererogation (perhaps an Anselmic idea anachronistically imposed upon the first century context), but they were legalists in the sense that they were relying upon external boundary markers (which included not only circumcision and kosher law, but a general commitment to the morality of the Torah) as the means of their righteousness before God.

And it should be pointed out that Luther railed against this sort of paradigm as well.

6 comments:

Pontificator said...

Ask the typical Catholic why he or she should expect to find God’s favor at the judgment and the answer is typically along the lines of, “I’ve been baptized, attend mass occasionally (perhaps not as often as I should) and I haven’t killed anyone.”

Yes, I agree this may well be the typical Catholic response. But is it wrong? Does it contradict Paul? I do not think so. When the Catholic responds like this, what he is in fact saying is "I am in Christ." How does he know he is "in Christ"? Because, by Baptism and Eucharist, he belongs to the Church, which is Christ's Body. Is this not in fact a primary Pauline theme and argument? And is this not in fact the essential import of the patristic dictum "extra Ecclesia nulla salus"?

Gerald said...

Al,

First of all, great to hear from you. I've missed you being around on the web. You’ve been in my thoughts on a number of occasions.

As to your questions, "Is it wrong? Does it contradict Paul?"

My short answer is “yes.” I do not think that Paul would give a free pass to a Catholic Christian simply because he or she participate in Catholic boundary markers. As in the first century debate, faith is for Paul the ultimate boundary marker that delineates the parameters of the covenant. Boundary markers without faith, both then and now, avails nothing. And one can't simply make the argument that adherence to boundary markers is certain evidence of faith. Many in Paul’s day adhered to the Jewish boundary markers but remained without faith and thus outside of the covenant (e.g., Pharisees).

In my experience, the vast majority of Catholics I know who regularly participate in Catholic boundary markers seem to have no observable spiritual life beyond the rites of the Catholic Church. Of course, it’s God’s alone to judge, but so many seem to be trusting in the sacraments in a sort of quasi-magical way, rather than trusting in what the boundary markers signify, or perhaps more importantly, trusting in the God who established the boundary markers.

Of course, this discussion really hinges on one’s sacramentology/ecclesiology. Are the sacraments themselves efficacious—even apart from an individual’s personal faith (as in infant baptism), per Catholic dogma? Or do they serve as covenant signs—much like circumcision of old—whereby the participant of the covenant is reminded of the spiritual provisions of the covenant? And more to the point at hand, “Can one have the sacraments yet not have salvation?” Catholic dogma suggest (demands?) that the answer to this question must be no. But I think Paul would say that this is a very real possibility. And I think this is one of the major weakness of Catholic theology and something that Catholicism needs to face up to in a fresh way.

Blessings.

Pontificator said...

My short answer is “yes.” I do not think that Paul would give a free pass to a Catholic Christian simply because he or she participate in Catholic boundary markers.

Of course. But it's a mistake to think that Baptism and Eucharist are merely external boundary markers, either for St Paul or for Catholics. They are sacraments of the living Christ, given to faith for faith. No informed Catholic believes that sacraments save mechanically, apart from faith--but they do save, freely and gratuitously, because Christ speaks and acts and loves in them. We are saved by Christ, not by the zeal and devotional power of our faith.

In my experience, the vast majority of Catholics I know who regularly participate in Catholic boundary markers seem to have no observable spiritual life beyond the rites of the Catholic Church. Of course, it’s God’s alone to judge, but so many seem to be trusting in the sacraments in a sort of quasi-magical way, rather than trusting in what the boundary markers signify, or perhaps more importantly, trusting in the God who established the boundary markers.

Gerald, with all respect I have to say that I find this paragraph remarkable for its spiritual hubris. I have no idea what proportion of Catholics will be saved at the Great Assize, but I know, through long pastoral experience with Protestant Christians, that the problem of nominal faith is just as great a problem in Protestantism as it is in Catholicism. It is a problem, a serious problem; but it's a problem that affects every Christian community and indeed every believer.

Is your faith a living faith? How do you know? How would you know? How can you know? Your criticism of sacramental faith as akin to magic in fact represents that introspective-pietistic turn against which Luther rebelled and against which he fought his entire career. Inevitably, pietism turns faith into the works-righteousness of zeal and enthusiasm. As Luther states in his Large Catechism, faith must have "something to which it may cling and upon whch it may stand"--and that something are the sacraments.

Sacraments are indeed magic! But they are Christ's magic, and that is their salvation.

Gerald said...

Al,

Thanks.

A couple of thoughts regarding your last comment.

First, I appreciate your insistence that the sacraments are efficacious only through faith. And while this is true at a certain level, the very implications of infant baptism for the remission of original sin suggests the opposite. In my mind, this gets the whole sacramental system started off on the wrong foot and eliminates personal faith as a necessary element right at the outset.

But even granting your insistence on the necessity of (personal?) faith, how many Catholics in the pew really understand this? Your original comment to my post is the very thing that I find most troubling about Catholic soteriology. In that comment you implied that it was indeed true that as long as one partook of the sacraments and was a generally decent person, then they should feel reasonably confident at the judgment—you made no mention of faith being necessary for the sacraments to be efficacious, even though this was the exact point of my original post (that covenant boundary markers without faith avail nothing).

I would ask again, is it possible for a Catholic to regularly partake of the sacraments, and be a generally decent person, and yet remain outside of Christ? If you answer yes, then I would only ask that you teach such to those in your parish. But isn’t it true that most priests teach essentially what you affirmed in your initial comment sans your later nuance regarding the necessity of faith—that as long as one participates in the sacraments and is a decent person, then they should have reasonable (though not definite) assurance of salvation? Perhaps the Catholic emphasis on the intrinsic efficacy of the sacraments (as seen in infant baptism) steers too many people into a religion that masks the necessity of personal conversion and faith.

As to the charge of spiritual hubris—perhaps it is just. God knows.

Blessings, Al. Sorry if I needlessly stepped on toes.

Pontificator said...

Gerald, you did not step on my toes, so no apology is needed. But I do find disturbing your willingness to generalize about the spiritual lives of Catholics based on your very limited encounters with Catholics. That is a problem.

You ask, "Is it possible for a Catholic to regularly partake of the sacraments, and be a generally decent person, and yet remain outside of Christ?" In other words, is it possible for an decent, moral person to receive the sacraments without faith? Of course. Hence the Catholic harping on the need for a lively faith expressed in good works. Matthew 25:31-46 and James 2:14-25 are favorite Catholic preaching texts.

There is a bitter irony here. Evangelicals love to criticize Catholics for teaching cheap grace (all one needs to do is go to Mass to get into heaven), works righteousness (what matters is how morally good a person is), and pathological fear of damnation (assurance is impossible, because we can never know if we are good enough). One wonders how Catholics can be guilty of all three at the same time, yet I suppose that from an evangelical-pietist viewpoint, which stresses the necessity of conversion and spiritual rebirth, there is a certain logic to it all.

The key issue, as I noted in my previous comment, is the sacramental objectivity of the gospel. You fear that this objectivity undermines the call to conversion. I fear that the denial of this objectivity turns faith into an impossible work to be performed, leading either to pride or despair. Here I side with Luther against the enthusiasts.

Gerald said...

Al,

My encounters with Catholic Christians are not as limited as you might suspect. Regardless, I too have observed the "bitter irony" you mention in your previous comment. It's a bit difficult to make all three charges stick at the same time, isn't it?

And I agree that the key issue in our disagreement is the sacramental objectivity of the gospel, as well as share your concern that evangelical piety can become too inwardly focused. I suppose both sides can fixate too easily on the means of salvation (faith for evangelicalism and the sacraments for Catholics) and loose sight of the Object of faith, and the One who is present in the sacraments.

Blessings, Al.