Friday, December 13, 2013

Patterns, structures, maps and context


The Bible isn't a list of propositions it's a brilliantly written library of great literature - in narrative, poems, wisdom and also in letters. The letters are not just off-the-cuff emails. They're carefully crafted communication.

This term across the South West some of the Christian Unions have immersed themselves in Paul's letter to the church in Rome. It's ideal because it hits the basics of faith in the form of a letter designed to catch the Roman church up into a united participation in God's missionary movement in his world.

There's much structure in the letter. I love seeing the big picture and in a letter like this the context is vital to making sense of the whole.

1:16-18 tells of the revelation of righteousness and wrath in the gospel with the subsequent sections showing how God has long been patient with Israel, in kindness giving them time to repent. They hadn't and so the name of God has been held in contempt. Is it worth believing in this God who seems to care not about injustice? This question builds until at the cross of Christ (3:25) the wrath of God was revealed in the death of Christ - sin comes to death and the case is proved that God is righteous.

The laying out of the gospel story in the history of Israel continues in chapter 4 and much more later in the book. Israel and the law become a vital issue and 'problem' in the movement of the gospel story from Adam to Christ.

Peter Leithart observes, as many commentators do, a chiastic structure in Romans 5-8.
A sandwiching of ideas that highlights the themes. He sees:

A. 5:1-11: The justified have hope for glory in midst of tribulation, because of God's love
    B. 5:12-21: Adam and Christ: Adam's sin reversed
      C. 6:1-14: Death in baptism means deliverance from dominance of sin
        D. 6:15-23: Members are to be presented as weapons of righteousness
            E. 7:1-6: Death to the law through the death of our Husband
        D'. 7:7-25: Bondage to sin provoked by law; a different law warring in members 
      C'. 8:1-17: God delivered where Law could not, setting free from sin and death
    B'. 8:18-25: Creation will be liberated from futility to which Adam subjected it
A'. 8:26-39: Assurance of hope in the midst of tribulation; we will not be separated from God's love in Christ

A chiasm allows for the raising of issues, the developing of ideas and highlighting major themes. The pairs build on each other and our attention is draw to the central section, in this case about our death in Christ's death that ends our brutal marriage to the law to bring us into a new marriage with Christ. One only has to watch people's eyes pop out of their head as they read it to know that its the meat in the sandwich.

Around this centre, parts A & A' both speak about the hope we have even though we suffer. God's love for us means that through suffering we'll grow, and certainly not be separated from Christ. Actually we know more of him in our suffering. The thought is introduced at the start of chapter 5 and concluded at the end of 8 - read them together! (Preach them together?)

Parts B & B' go together to show the transition needed from Adam to Christ, to reverse Adam's sin and to liberate humanity and the rest of creation. Meanwhile we reign in life and yet groan in frustration. Read together we see the reigning and the waiting.

Parts C & C' show that we've been plunged into death with Christ, through his cross and our baptism... so too he put sin, condemnation, death to death as he died as one of us... and so did what we could never do for ourselves. He doesn't come to inspire us or to offer us a new rule book but to put us to the death our sin was heading for and then to bring us to adopted life in the Spirit as surely as he himself is resurrected. Reading both parts together develops the thought more fully.

Parts D & D' tell us that we're radically free from sin to live to righteousness, and yet experience the wretchedness of sin. There is a tension here in which a Christian lives... free and yet torn up inside as we lug around our old flesh in our Spirit-filled bodies. Where D feels overstated and is the kind of text that makes people think sinless perfection is possible, D' alone seems despairing. Together they resonate deeply. Together they show that Christian theology fits Christian experience. The Christian is free and yet constrained, liberated and yet still awaiting final resurrection.

And E shows us that the break from law and death is decisive, not because the law of God died... but because we did in Christ. The ultimate way out of a terrible marriage... our death... followed by our resurrection in Christ our true and better husband who loved us even to his own death for us. And if this is at the heart of his story then the recurring themes of being "in Christ" of union with him, of leaving Adam's helpless race to be born again into Christ is exactly what we should expect. An espousal story of union with the true husband.

It's the Bible's story from creation to new creation. As NT Wright observes, an Exodus story. From captivity to wedding feast... and yet the frustration of life in the wilderness. The framework of the story has been set out in history, it continues and concludes from all that has been done before. This is not a chaotic story, and seeing the structure makes it clearer...

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