God’s Fair Judgment / Soteriology / God Knowing Our Thoughts / Chosen People
This is an installment of my replies to a series of articles on the epistle to the Romans (written by St. Paul) by Dr. David Madison: an atheist who was a Methodist minister for nine years: with a Ph.D. in Biblical Studies from Boston University. His summary article is called, “Bad Bible Theology: Paul’s Letter to the Romans: Let me count the ways…that Paul got it wrong” (2-26-18). He devotes a paper to each chapter. Unless he repeats himself (a bad habit of his) or descends to sheer biblical skepticism (which I have less than no interest in), I will reply to all.
The introduction is basically a catalogue of rank insults, where he calls St. Paul “a crank” and a “delusional cult fanatic” and “the prototype for Christian crazies” and “an obsessive-compulsive mediocre thinker and bad theologian” and “an embarrassment.” He adds: “how can anyone take this guy seriously?” That about covers the “content” there. Bears poop in the woods, brats throw fits, squirrels walk telephone lines, and the prevalent anti-theist brand of atheists insult Christians. Ho hum. What else is new?
Dr. Madison’s words will be in blue below.
Dr. Madison calls his critique of Romans chapter 2, “Is the Church really filled with hypocrites? No.: But the apostle Paul noticed a few… “ (2-10-17).
Paul goes on this rant against hypocrites although he had never visited the congregation in Rome. Near the end of the letter, in chapter 16, he says “hi” to quite a few people whom he knows there, so maybe he had reports of unsavory conduct. In 1:11 he had written, “I long to see you, that I may impart to you some spiritual gift to strengthen you.” Hence his strong words against hypocrisy; maybe he’s giving advance warning?
We can give him credit for impatience with hypocrisy, but then nasty Paul resumes the rant. God will run out of patience: “…for those who are self-seeking and who obey not the truth but wickedness, there will be wrath and fury. There will be anguish and distress for everyone who does evil” (vv.8-9). Wrath, fury, anguish, distress. Paul’s message here reminds us of John the Baptist’s severe words for the religious leaders who came out to hear him preach: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee the wrath to come? …even now the axe is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” (Matthew 3:7-10) Yes, there are Hallmark moments in Paul’s letters, but there is uncompressing severity as well. Don’t get carried away bragging about a ‘god of love’ in the New Testament.
I dealt with this false idea that God’s judgment or reference to it by His creatures (like Paul) is somehow supposedly immediately an evil, wicked thing, in the previous installment. No need to go over old ground . . . But we see that Dr. Madison will often be repeating himself once again: a hallmark of his attack against the Gospel of Mark also.
Can It Be? A Hint at Secular Ethics?
Again, to his credit, Paul saw that being in God’s favor didn’t depend on being Jewish, i.e., in the company of those who had heard God’s law for centuries. “For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous in God’s sight, but the doers of the law who will be justified” (v. 13). No matter who you are, you can qualify, and I find vv. 14-15 startling; did Paul really realize what he was saying: “When Gentiles, who do not possess the law, do instinctively what the law requires, these, though not having the law, are a law to themselves. They show that what the law requires is written on their hearts, to which their own conscience also bears witness…” Do instinctively…written on their hearts…their own conscience bears witness? Atheists who argue that we don’t need religion to behave morally embrace these very concepts.
I wondered aloud in my previous reply how Dr. Madison would deal with this. I thought he might deny that Paul wrote it. Instead, he gives him credit, and calls this “secular ethics.” It may be part of secular ethics (although those don’t usually reference God), but it is also Christian ethics and always has been. I give Dr. Madison credit as well, for recognizing and praising this portion that he would agree with. Not bad: to be written by “a crank” and a “the prototype for Christian crazies” huh?
I noted this passage way back in 2003, in one of my more “conciliatory” papers about atheism.
But Paul is caught in a major contradiction here, because he really doesn’t mean what he says in verse 10, i.e., that glory, honor and peace are for everyone who does good. The heart of Pauline theology, so earnestly embraced by Luther, was justification by faith, as stated so bluntly by Paul in Romans 10:9: “If you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” No amount of ‘doing good’ will do the trick.
There is no contradiction. This is simply Dr. Madison the former Methodist, interpreting Paul the way Protestants do. Paul teaches precisely what Catholics hold, regarding justification and salvation, as I have shown in many papers:
“Catholic Justification” in James & Romans [11-18-15]
‘Doers of the Law’ Are Justified, Says St. Paul [National Catholic Register, 5-22-19]
The Invasion-of-Privacy God
No surprise: personal monotheism is stated here with a vengeance. Paul is confident that, on the Day of Judgment, “…God, through Jesus Christ, will judge the secret thoughts of all.” (v. 16) God will judge your thoughts! The theologians who came up with this idea discovered the formula for terrorizing people.
“The theologians” didn’t come up with anything. This was part of God’s revelation. It’s called omniscience: i.e., God knows everything. Thus, this would include human thoughts. It was taught in the Old Testament long before Paul was born:
1 Chronicles 28:9 (RSV) …the LORD searches all hearts, and understands every plan and thought.… (cf. 1 Ki 8:39; 2 Chr 6:30; Ps 44:21; Is 66:18; Ezek 11:5; Mt 6:8; Lk 16:15; Acts 1:24; Rom 8:27; Heb 4:13)
Psalm 147:5 Great is our LORD, and abundant in power; his understanding is beyond measure. (cf. Job 36:4; 37:16; Is 40:28; 46:10; 48:3; Acts 15:18)
I suppose it would be a source of terror for unrepentant sinners on judgment day. But of course, that’s not God‘s fault. They chose to reject Him.
Jesus was in the same camp (at least as depicted by those who created the fictional Galilean peasant); he claimed that the hairs of our head are numbered—and the deity knows as well the thought-crimes inside our skulls: lust is the equivalent of adultery.
Yes He was. This hits upon a major component of atheism, or the subjective reasons for atheism. The atheist (or any unrepentant, active sinner) doesn’t like the idea of God watching over them and knowing what they are doing. That goes against the desire for human autonomy and freedom that we all have or tend to have. And so the easiest way to get rid of this “cosmic supervision” is to deny that God exists.
I once had a parishioner who was worried that people were watching her through the TV. Crazy, yes, but just drop the TV, and that’s what personal monotheism is: God is always watching you. Who thinks it’s cool to have cameras—installed by the state, our boss, landlord or a god—spying on us in our bedrooms and bathrooms—indeed, everywhere? And with the capacity for getting inside our heads. This evil theology should be off-putting to decent people.
See what I mean? Dr. Madison demonstrates for one and all precisely what I just stated (and I am answering as I read: as is my usual custom and modus operandi). I would say that “decent” Christians aren’t offended by this. It’s simply part of Who God is: omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent, and omnibenevolent. This knowledge (of God and our awareness of it) should cause us to reform our bad behavior. But if a person doesn’t want to do that, then he or she would be hostile to all these related ideas: hence also to God; and so they reject Him and deny that He exists.
As for the folks who have lost their faith and mourn its passing, Christopher Hitchens asked why—why would you want it back? Personal monotheism is totalitarianism: you can’t even have ‘secret thoughts’ without God knowing. Heaven, Hitchens said, is a celestial North Korea. He couldn’t imagine anyone yearning for it.
Right. I submit that he can’t imagine anyone who wants to hold on to sinful behavior and thoughts, contrary to God’s will, liking the idea that God knows all their thoughts.
Paul and Jesus should rub people the wrong way because they claimed to be on a first name basis with the Invasion-of-Privacy god. Beware all who position themselves this way—and posture accordingly. They rate themselves as supremely qualified to tell the rest of us what to do. As we go through the Letter to the Romans we will see that Paul specializes in just that.
God’s messengers tell us what God revealed about Himself. Why would anyone expect otherwise (on the assumption that God exists)? So, don’t blame them; blame the God Who motivates and sends them.
A Positive Note at the End
Paul had little patience with the notion of Chosen People. So being circumcised was irrelevant; this outward mark on the flesh counted for nothing:
Well, it wasn’t nothing when Paul had Timothy (half Jewish and half Gentile) circumcised (Acts 16:1-3).
“Rather, a person is a Jew who is one inwardly, and real circumcision is a matter of the heart—it is spiritual and not literal. Such a person receives praise not from others but from God” (v.29).
A nice sentiment indeed . . .
All this shows is that Paul agreed that all the rituals of the Mosaic Law were not binding on Gentiles. But it doesn’t follow that the Jews were not the chosen people, or that Paul denied that they were. Romans 11 puts the lie to the latter:
Romans 11:1-2 I ask, then, has God rejected his people? By no means! I myself am an Israelite, a descendant of Abraham, a member of the tribe of Benjamin.  God has not rejected his people whom he foreknew. . . .
Romans 11:17-18 But if some of the branches were broken off, and you, a wild olive shoot, were grafted in their place to share the richness of the olive tree,  do not boast over the branches. If you do boast, remember it is not you that support the root, but the root that supports you.
Romans 11:26-29 and so all Israel will be saved; as it is written, “The Deliverer will come from Zion, he will banish ungodliness from Jacob”;  “and this will be my covenant with them when I take away their sins.”  As regards the gospel they are enemies of God, for your sake; but as regards election they are beloved for the sake of their forefathers.  For the gifts and the call of God are irrevocable.
See also Romans 3:
Romans 3:1-4 Then what advantage has the Jew? Or what is the value of circumcision?  Much in every way. To begin with, the Jews are entrusted with the oracles of God.  What if some were unfaithful? Does their faithlessness nullify the faithfulness of God?  By no means! Let God be true though every man be false, as it is written, “That thou mayest be justified in thy words, and prevail when thou art judged.”
Romans 3:31 Do we then overthrow the law by this faith? By no means! On the contrary, we uphold the law.
Photo credit: Saint Paul Writing His Epistles (c. 1620), attributed to Valentin de Boulogne (1591-1632) [public domain / Wikimedia Commons]