Meeting Times at 4th United Presbyterian Church

Cafe' Worship: 9:15 a.m. each Sunday in Gathering Hall (activities provided for children; coffee; snacks)
Adult Sunday School: 10 a.m.

Sunday Worship: 11 a.m.

Bible Study: each Thursday at 6 p.m.

Community Forum: last Thursday of each month at 6 p.m. with meal (no community forum in November, 2011)

About the 4th United Presbyterian Bible Blog

Posts on this blog are from me, Rev. George H. Waters, one of the two organizing co-pastors of 4th United Presbyterian Church. Our other organizing pastor was Rev. Sonya McAuley-Allen, who is now pastor of a church in Charlotte, N.C. Since June of 2011, Rev. Elizabeth Peterson has been our parish associate pastor for new church development. The earliest posts are sermon notes from the few I have typed the last two years. Then, there is a series of notes posted on the book of Romans. After that, it varies from week to week, sometimes church news, sometimes reflections on a happening, a passage of scripture, or even some pictures. This blog is meant to open the conversation we have going on in our church to others in our community.

The picture below is of our church's sanctuary, built in 1913.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

A Close Look at Romans 1:16-17

Most Bible commentators say that Romans 1:16-17 is Paul's clear statement of the main theme of the letter. And, there is certainly something to be said for that view. But, what I am more concerned about is, "what does Paul mean in this very important statement?" Often, it is assumed that Paul means in Romans 1:16-17 whatever the Bible commentator thinks is Paul's main theological point in Romans. What I want to do is ask: what is Paul really saying here? What does he mean when he says "God's righteousness is revealed 'from faith to faith?' But, I have jumped ahead of myself here, because we need to step back and not quicky assume that the common translation into english is the best translation.

So I ask: "what is the best translation of this passage?" I am particularly concerned with the translation of the Greek words normally translated as "righteousness" and "faith," and will be talking about these issues some below. Here are the two verses in the original language, as it was first written by Paul in Greek:

Οὐ γὰρ ἐπαισχύνομαι τὸ εὐαγγέλιον, δύναμις γὰρ θεοῦ ἐστιν εἰς σωτηρίαν παντὶ τῷ πιστεύοντι, Ἰουδαίῳ τε πρῶτον καὶ Ελληνι:

δικαιοσύνη γὰρ θεοῦ ἐν αὐτῷ ἀποκαλύπτεται ἐκ πίστεως εἰς πίστιν, καθὼς γέγραπται, Ὁ δὲ δίκαιος ἐκ πίστεως ζήσεται.

In translating this passage, I want to give close consideration to the following Greek words/phrases: παντὶ τῷ πιστεύοντι; δικαιοσύνη γὰρ θεοῦ ἐν αὐτῷ ἀποκαλύπτεται ἐκ πίστεως εἰς πίστιν; Ὁ δὲ δίκαιος ἐκ πίστεως ζήσεται.

The key terms (pisteuo and pistis; and dikaiosune and dikaios)whose meaning is complex come from two roots. The first set of terms are pisteuonti (verb/participle form) and pistis (noun form). The second set of terms are dikaiosune' (abstract noun) and dikaios ( personal noun). Most translations render the phrase in which pisteuonti is used as "to everyone who believes" or "to everyone who has faith." And, most translations render the phrase in which pisteos and pistis occur as "from faith to faith." But, if you look through the ancient Greek dictionaries and begin to explore how pistis or it's verb form pisteuo can be translated, then matters get a little complicated. Because the verb pisteuo indicates a trustful way of being, a faithful way of being, instead of just a cognitive commitment (belief that something is true). It seems to me that it would make a lot of sense to translate the first phrase "to everyone who is faithful" or "to everyone who lives in trust" instead of "to everyone who believes." And, in v. 17, it may be better to translate "from faithfulness to faithfulness," instead of "from faith to faith." The important point is this, this Greek word that Paul uses pisteuo and pistis to describe this holy state of being between God and humanity - he describes a "way of being," not simply a "belief." A way of being includes the commitment of mind, heart and life. When Paul spoke earlier about the "obedience of faith," he describes this total commitment, this way of devotion to God, that does not just mean a belief of the mind, but a total commitment of the self and course of life to God. Later when Paul is trying to clarify just what this desired way of being is, he puts Abraham forward as an example, talking of how Abraham demonstrated "pistis" in believing the promise of God, acting out of trust in God, showing allegiance and devotion to God in his obedient and trustful response to God. But, it is the nature of God who comes to humans as faithful and trustworthy and merciful that awakens this trusting devotion in human beings. So, I understand this trustworthy, merciful, compassionate character of God as "the righteousness (or justice) of God that is revealed in the Gospel." And, it is that loving, merciful, trusting way of being that is revealed from the faithfulness of God in Jesus to the faithful/trusting response of human beings who have been encountered by God in the Gospel. The translation 'from faith to faith' just doesn't quite get that.

And, that leads to a discussion of what the term "dikaiosune tou theou" means. It is normally translated "righteousness of God." Clearly it is an attribute of God - perhaps the central thing about God. The term "dikaiosune" is regularly translated as "justice." But, this term rather than being an abstract legal term, describes a way of action and being by which God "makes things right." So, whether we translate the word as "righteousness" or "justice," the important thing to know is that it describes the way of being in which God makes things right, set things straight, brings justice and healing and wholeness to human life. The way God has done that is in Jesus. Jesus is God's way of making things right, whole, well on earth. This "righteousness of God (God's holy way of making things right)" is revealed in the Gospel from the faithful/trusting/trustworthy way of being of God to the corresponding faithful/trusting way of being human. I, following Barth's translation, expect that this means from faithfulness to God's covenant with Abraham to bless all the peoples to the faithful obedience of those who have been awakened by God's faithfulness revealed in Christ. At each point, we find that there is the action of God and the response of humans - in one dynamic holy movement - this gracious movement and power is what we mean when we say "the Gospel of Christ." This response of humanity begins and is empowered by the response of the holy Son of Man, Jesus. In him, God comes to humanity, but, also, humanity comes to God.

And, at the close of v. 17, we get the term "dikaios" which can be translated "the righteous one" or "the just one." Is this referring to Jesus as "the righteous one who lives in faithfulness/in trusting devotion to God?" Or, does it refer to those who have been touched by God's faithfulness in Jesus to become people who live in faithfulness to God? Jesus is the head of humanity; he is that one who is righteous and has opened this way of human beings living faithfully and trustingly with God, which is the way to be just or righteous. In the end, in Jesus, what has been revealed is the merciful, faithful way of God and the corresponding trusting, faithful way of humans with God. This is the power of God to salvation for all who receive this way of being, this way that has come among us as a gift through Jesus Christ life, death and resurrection.

After all this discussion, here is my translation which is beyond a literal translation and somewhat of an interpretation, which I think is necessary to be a meaningful translation of this passage:

"For I am not ashamed of the Gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who entrusts himself or herself to God, the Jew first, and then the Greek. For God's way of making things right is revealed in the Gospel from the faithfulness of God in Christ which awakens faithful devotion to God among human beings. As it is written, the righteous one shall live in this way of faithful trust."

Read four or five different english translations of these verses. In the next post I will explain other ways that this passage is translated, and why I chose the translation that I did, and why I chose certain meanings and why that is important. It is important that we get a solid foundation and not jump ahead too quickly as if we already know exactly what Paul means in Romans 1:16-17. Often assumptions that we know what scripture means are what keeps us from understanding what scripture means.

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