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For many years now I have used it to provide an almost daily comment on some book of the Bible, and have just this week embarked on a reading of St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans. Written perhaps around 60 CE, it is Paul’s most deliberate exposition of his message about the one he called Jesus Messiah.
I guess most people, maybe even most Christian believers, will wonder why on earth I spend my time browsing over such an ancient text. They would doubtless admit its historical importance, bur would not imagine it to have much contemporary relevance. Of course I would defend my habit by asserting that Paul is one of the greatest and certainly one of the most influential thinkers in history, without whom we cannot understand the transformation of Jesus- Judaism from a small sect into a world religion. But in fact I find that Paul’s method of thinking about God and his insights into what is good for human beings are challenging to me here and now.
I could for example take his view of the followers of Jesus not as a new religion but as a new form of humanity, able to live peacefully in multi-racial, multi-national communities, even while being persecuted by a great world empire. But rather than that, I want to pluck a tiny phrase from the first section of his letter to the Romans.
“I am shameless about the Joyful News, since it is the rescuing power of God for everyone who trusts in him, for the Jew first and also for the Greek. For the saving justice of God is unveiled in it, from his trust to ours, as the scripture says, “The just will live by trust.” (Translated M Mair 2016)
Paul is writing about the justice of God, which he understands as the principles by which God desires to order the world. This kind of justice, he says, is unveiled in the Joyful News, that is, the Christian story of Jesus – and he adds, lietrally, from trust to trust. He can only mean, I think, from God’s trust in humanity to humanity’s trust in God. Now I am accustomed to thinking of humqn faith or trust in God as the basis of many religions, but the notion of God’s trust in us is more radical, and as far as I know, a specific invention of Judaism.
The Jewish bible begins with the story of a creator God who makes a universe and creates life in it, including that of creatures made in his/ her own likeness, who will look after it all on his behalf. Instead these human creatures decide to grasp the knowledge of everything and to rule the world on their terms rather than the creator’s, who is left scarmbling to catch up with his rebellious creatures without wiping life out altogether. After repeatd failures, God realises that he cannot command human cooperation in his wish to bless his creation, and that he must therefore ask for it, by starting with just ine family, that of Abraham. In the end of the day this God has to trust human beings to help him bring his creatives project to perfection, meaning that God has more faith in humanity than I do.
This is such an appalling theology that hardly any Church has openly adopted it. It’s doesn’t sound much like what people want from a God. Any respectable God will have a CV full of mighty acts and irresistable projects; he/she will certainly be omnipotent if not omnicompetent; and anyone who refuses obedience better guard their ass when God’s Big Day arrives. That’s what a proper deity does.
The classic texts of Christianity do have some elements of that kind of God, in particular of the notion that one day God will actually exercise his power, but the great stories of the Bible present an impossible God, who hobnobs with human beings, requires their company and cooperation, and cannot even turn the sending of his Son into a worldly success. This undignified God lurks behind the other more acceptable Gods of the Bible, the sender of the flood, the destroyer of Sodom, the killer of Canaanites, the smiter of Assyrians, the beater of Babylon the Great Whore.
This is the strange God of Genesis and Jesus’ parable of the Lost Son, who is so crazy for love of his/ her disobedient creature that he/she perseveres in the face of all the evidence, that he/she puts the divine repuation in jeopardy to keep faith with humanity. This understanding of God is made explicit by Jesus, who lived and died in the responsive trust that human beings may give to this God.
God will not do the bizz on his/ her own. God refuses to be that sort of God but is determined to perfect creation with the help of his creatures. I guess that still leaves it open that human beings may make the big refusal and disappear into the evolutionary dustbin, but if so, my belief is that God will ultimately find a suitable partner.
Meanwhile Paul reminds me of God’s trust in me. The only theologian I know who has made much of this theme is Bishop Desmond Tutu. In his book “God has a Dream” he states that “God believes in us” emphasising the dignity and responsibility this gives. He has certainly shown in all his life the confidence that God will not do it on his own and that believers must themselves receive and exercise his/ her justice. As against all the main iterpretations of it, I think this is what Paul meant by the Biblical phrase, “the just will live by trust.”
So, yes, I find that the understanding of little phrases like Paul’s “from God’s trust to our trust,” easily justifies time spent on bible study.