Monday, April 21, 2014

Bertram's Notes toward Programming an Advent Pericope (for Easter)

As previously mentioned, I recently received the library of Robert W. Bertram, who taught systematic theology at Concordia Seminary, St. Louis, and then “in exile” at Christ-Seminary—Seminex and the Lutheran School of Theology in Chicago. That latter venue was where our paths initially crossed, back in the fall of ‘88. In those days I was required to take a graduate course per term at LSTC in order to be able to live in one of the seminary-owned apartments, a cheaper option than living in the housing provided me as a Ph.D. student at the University of Chicago (Bob’s alma mater, too). So he was my teacher for a few of those LSTC courses, which took place outside of my studies at the U. of C. Divinity School.

Of late I’ve been reading through Bob’s handwritten notes in his copy of the first edition of the American Bible Society’s Greek-English New Testament. These were notes that Bob wrote in connection with a procedure he developed here at Valpo, namely, “Programming the Pericope,” a procedure that served as the basis for what would later become “the Crossings” method for working through an appointed biblical text. (Ed Schroeder has written about the development of "Crossings" in the context of teaching theology at Valpo. If interested in that Ur-Geschichte, go to and look up Ed's reminiscences about those years.)

While there are Easter-themed notes in many of the margins, Bob’s commentary on the first seven verses of the first chapter of Paul’s Letter to the Romans is particularly apropos for the current season. True, the original context for these notes was Advent, not Easter. And yet the respective focus of each of these seasons mutually conditions the other. In short, Paul mixes Advent, Christmas, Good Friday, Easter--and Pentecost in those seven verses. Bob pondered their intertwining here and concluded by raising some pertinent questions: What good is it—good for us, that is—for the Son to have come and to be declared Son of God in the resurrection from the dead? What good is it that there is a Son of God who has come, who has suffered and died, and who is declared to be the Son of God through the resurrection from the dead?

To get the full benefit of Bob’s five notes on this pericope, you should have your Bible open to Romans 1:1-7. Bob's notes here are in black ink, unlike the red-inked notes one finds predominantly in the notebook. I think it probable that these black notes are among the first Bob wrote, sometime shortly after he purchased the notebook in 1968. (The italicized words below were spelled out by Bob in the original Greek. I've added the English equivalents for readers unfamiliar with Greek.)

Note 1 (on Rom. 1:3b and 1:4a): The contrast between “kata sarka” [according to flesh] on the one hand, and kata pneuma hagiosunes [according to the Holy Spirit] on the other, contrasts something more, I believe, than merely his “humanity” with his “divine spirit,” as the above Engl. tr. puts it. Doesn’t sarka [flesh] connote here something of the corruptedness or fallenness or perishableness of “humanity” if not its downright sinfulness, esp. when it is juxtaposed (as it is here) to “the spirit of holiness” (not just to “his divine spirit”)? True, there may be also another aspect of divinity implied here as well, viz., the “power” of divinity (an aspect which Paul later, at 1:20, builds into his “natural revelation,” but which he also assigns a prominent place in his distinctive God of the “gospel,” which itself is “the power of God unto salvation,” 1:16). And that “power” is the means by which, or the dimension in which, (as contrasted with the “fleshly” dimension, which by contrast is weak) Jesus is “declared Son of God.” And the powerfulness of this designated “Son” appears from his being raised from the dead, which is the realm of the “flesh.” However, his being raised from the dead illumines both aspects of his deity, his being the “son of God”: i.e., both the power which that entails as well as the holiness. For “God would not suffer His Holy One to see corruption.” “Flesh” is, by definition for Paul, corrupted, subject to death, mortal. But mortality means contamination, the opposite of “holiness.”

Note 2 (on v. 3a): “Coming” or “having come” betrays right off the bat the half-truth in the christology of Arius, which Nicaea had to take into account. True, as the pre-existent “Son of God” “there was no time when He was not.” But in his “human nature” there was a time when he was not. Else there’s no taking the Incarnation seriously at all.

Note 3 (on v. 6a): “Among whom [i.e., among the “all nations”] are also you”—this does seem to indicate, as Feine-Behm-Kuemmel [classic German introduction to the NT--MB] argues, a Gentile Xian readership for this epistle.

Note 4 (on v. 7): When we, in our “Diagnosis” phase of “Programming the Pericope,” ask “what is the problem,” we mean by “problem” not necessarily the problem to which the readers have utterly succumbed and from which they have not at all been extricated. What we do mean by “problem” is that negative, threatening alternative which always continues to dog them as a live (really, a deadly) option, a constant alternative. And even these few opening verses (vv. 1-7) already hint that there is such an ongoing, threatening alternative, and it suggests furthermore what this hazardous condition is. Since the opposite, the saving, alternative which Paul has been sent to bring about instead is “the obedience of faith,” then—by inverse inference—it is that which his readers are in danger of not having. Not only don’t they have the obedience “of faith”  but also, since they don’t have that most basic kind of “obedience” (viz., “faith), they don’t really have any kind of obedience, I gather, which is worthy of the name. For, as Paul will say much later (14:23), “Anything not based on faith is sin.” However, in addition to their disobedience and unfaith, which by themselves sound like quite private and strictly personal, individual, problems, there is also the hint here of a transpersonal, a racial or ethnic or nationality problem. They are not from that ethnic tradition, that national community, which “comes from the seed of David,” which has had “the Holy Writings,” which has had “the prophets,” which has been “called out” for “holiness” and life-saving and for “belovedness.” And now because of all that, and on top of all that, they (the readers) run the immediate danger of not recognizing and heeding this apostolos [apostle] who could well bring them those very Solutions for want of which they otherwise perish.

Note 5 (on vv. 1-7): What can we say about the christology of just these first seven verses? Here are a few observations, arranged at random. a) One noteworthy distinction is between the “Son of God’s” having been “promised,” on the one hand (namely, by God’s “prophets in the Holy Writings") and his having been “declared” or “designated in power,” on the other hand (namely, “by the resurrection from the dead”). True, Paul does not say in just so many words that it was the Son which God promised; rather he says it was God’s Gospel which God promised. Still, that Gospel which God did promise was a Gospel “about” his Son. The point I’m getting at here, I guess, is this: what is the difference between God’s Son before the time of Jesus and God’s Son after the coming of Jesus? Or more specifically, what’s the difference in the ways this Son is presented to us before and after the coming of Jesus? Answer: before the coming of Jesus the “Son” is presented to us by means of prophetic “promise,” in the Scriptures. Since the coming of Jesus the Son is presented to us, no longer merely in promise but now “in power,” “declared.” On second thought, the contrast is not between “promised,” on the one hand, and then merely “declared… in power,” on the other hand. Really, the latter pole of the contrast has really two dimensions: both “becoming” (or “coming,” genomenou [becoming, coming]) and “declared” (horisthentos). So the whole contrast, therefore, is between:

In other words, to put the contrast perhaps too simply, the contrast is between a merely “promised” Son, on the one hand, and an incarnate Son, on the other hand. This might raise the question: If in a very real way the Son was already available to men back in the days when he was merely being promised, what new thing, if any, was made available to men now that he has actually come? One overly intellectualistic answer would be: We have to believe in him as having now come, because that in fact is what he now is, else we would be affirming something as still future (and mistakenly so) when in fact it is now an accomplished present. But surely that—viz., that concern merely to have believers keep their tenses straight—cannot be the sufficient explanation for God’s sending out a whole fleet of apostolic heralds announcing the arrival of his Son. There must be something awfully “good” about this Good News now which was not quite so good or was not good in the same full way when it was merely a future expectation. What is that plus which has now been added with the Son’s actual arrival and coronation? What we are asking really (and this underscores the wisdom of choosing this pericope for Advent) is this, What difference does it make that the Son comes? In fact, mustn’t we put the question even more strongly: Not only, What difference does it make, but What good is it—good, that is, for us—for the Son to “come”? For that matter, What good is it for us that there is a “Son of God” at all? Granted, such a question sounds awfully brash. But we dare to ask it only because we trust that there is an answer.

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