Stock Atheist Insults / Flesh vs. Spirit / Did Paul Wallow in “Personal Torment”?
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?
Thus far, I have counter-replied to 31 of Dr. Madison’s critiques, from three different series, without hearing one peep back from him as of yet (28 days’ total time, starting on 8-1-19). This certainly doesn’t suggest to me that he is very confident in his opinions. I know he’s still alive and kicking, because I’ve seen him write other posts during this same period (example one / two / three).
Dr. Madison’s words will be in blue below.
Dr. Madison calls his critique of Romans chapter 7, “Gosh, Why Is THAT in the Bible?: One big chunk of the New Testament can go in the trash” (4-21-17).
No, there is no such thing as a Holy Man who is privy to God’s thoughts . . .
Really? No saints, no prophets, no apostles, and no Jesus Who is God, no fathers and doctors of the Church? What a despairing view.
As any layperson who has plowed through the whole Bible will testify, there seems to be a lot that doesn’t need to be there, that shouldn’t be there. The common sense reaction, “How in the world is this the Word of God?” applies to literally thousands of texts—although many folks wouldn’t say so out loud.
So I guess we need a wise guy like Dr. Madison to decide what makes the cut in the Bible, rather than holy people (whose existence he has just denied) and the Church of God deciding such mundane things for us.
Just how bad can some scripture be? . . . in terms of pathetic human babbling—resulting in pathetic theobabble—it would be pretty hard to beat Romans 7. In fact my distaste for Paul goes back to my teenage years; Bible geek though I was, I dreaded reading his clunky letters. Then in 1992 I came across British scholar A.N. Wilson’s perfect description of Paul: “To say that he was self-contradictory is an understatement. He was a man who was fighting himself and quarreling with himself all the time; and he managed to project the warfare in his own breast on to the Cosmos itself” (Jesus, p. 23).
That explains quite a bit. Dr. Madison ran across this slop in 1992: as arrogant and assuming as his own endless trashings of the Bible, and it apparently set him on the course that ended in atheistic despair. We are what we eat. As Paul wisely stated:
2 Timothy 4:3-4 For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own likings,  and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander into myths.
Dr. Madison found Wilson, Carrier, and others to satisfy his itching ears, and he has regurgitated their irrational pablum ever since (looks like).
So would this be your first choice for a guy to write scripture? No. His personal torment did not result in insights about God.
Yes (were it for me to select). I absolutely love St. Paul and his personality and style. He’s on my short list (with Jesus, Mary, St. Augustine, St. Therese, St. Teresa of Avila, and Cardinal Newman) of people to go talk to, when I (Lord willing) get to heaven. I guess that makes me a nutty fanatic, too, huh? So be it. The so-called “smart people” insulted Paul from the beginning. In Athens, this is what some of the pointy-heads said about him: “Some also of the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers met him. And some said, ‘What would this babbler say?'” (Acts 17:18a). The more things change, the more they stay the same.
Writing Theology from the Therapist Couch
Paul felt that sin was a cosmic force, and—much like an aggressive cancer—invades people to their very core:
Exactly right. It’s called original sin and concupiscence (propensity to sin). It’s the easiest Christian and biblical doctrine to defend, as it is self-evident by observing any and all people.
“For we know that the law is spiritual; but I am of the flesh, sold into slavery under sin. I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree that the law is good. But in fact it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me.” (7:14-20)
He had super-sized internalized low self-esteem. Today we would advise therapy and even meds is some cases.
Nonsense. Christians draw a stark distinction between the flesh (which means that part of fallen humanity that wars against God, and is separate from the Holy Spirit and grace; not literal flesh) and the spirit: a common rhetorical dichotomy in Paul: especially in Romans 8 and Galatians 5. Paul is highlighting the flesh and its fruits in this chapter, just as he will highlight (in deliberate contradistinction) the triumphant Spirit in chapter 8.
It’s a dramatic build-up, so to speak. He is saying here that we can’t win this battle with our flesh and sinful desires, by ourselves (the heresy of Pelagianism or works-salvation). We need God’s enabling grace and power (which he details in the next chapter).
This is not low self-esteem; this is the reality of very flawed and frail human beings. But those who deny sin have to redefine and rationalize this sort of statement away. The way Dr. Madison does it is to classify St. Paul as a mentally ill nut and fanatic, in need of medication for his malady, rather than admit that he himself ever suffers from what Paul describes here.
I think it is far more “mentally ill” and abnormal (not to mention prideful) to deny that we have any sin or struggles with sin, than to openly admit the obvious.
But he was sure that the Cosmos had provided a fix for his anguish. “Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” This is personal theism with a vengeance; Paul had horrible forebodings about a wrathful God aware of his inability to defeat sin. However, he had discovered, through his hallucinations, the magical solution: believe in the resurrection of Jesus. Verse 7: “Brothers, you have died to the law through the body of Christ, so that you may belong to another, to him who has been raised from the dead in order that we may bear fruit for God.” But did this really work for Paul? He’s complaining a lot in these verses about the on-going battle: “Wretched man that I am!”
Yes, it did work, for him and for Christians generally. See Romans 8 and Paul’s entire corpus. We can be sure that if Paul didn’t write this chapter about human frailty, then atheists like Dr, Madison would be saying that he is merely “pie-in-the-sky” and a juvenile fantasist divorced from reality of human struggles and sufferings and existential angst. But if he does write it, we get this condescending, patronizing tripe. If he didn’t express this aspect of the Christian life, then the cry no doubt would be that all Christians are self-righteous and “holier-than-thou”: folks who deny that they have any problems, who live in self-delusion. We just can’t win.
Now it’ll be fun to see what Dr. Madison does with Romans 8. Perhaps he will say that is unreality and pie-in-the-sky “magic.” When Paul appears too “happy” then atheists will say he is nuts (excessive religious “enthusiasm” etc.), but if it looks like he is too sad, he is a nut. See how it works? It’s Jekyll and Hyde. Paul is two-faced. We Christians are madmen no matter what we believe or express. We can never be right.
Bear in mind that this outburst is made in a letter to a church he’s never visited.
So what? We’re to believe that every pen pal relationship of people who never met is invalid?
From Galatians 2 we know that he didn’t get along with Peter . . .
From Galatians 2 what we know is that he rebuked Peter one time for behavioral hypocrisy. Big deal. The Bible says that “faithful are the wounds of a friend” and “rebuke a wise man and he will love you.” That proves nothing about any supposed ongoing difficulty. I’ve rebuked my children scores of times. Does it follow that I don’t “get along” with them? No!: not logically, and not in actual fact.
For one who thinks himself so wise (able to judge, mock, and dismiss the Bible and holy persons at the drop of a hat), Dr. Madison seems exceedingly naive and unrealistic about human relationships (in drawing such a ridiculous conclusion).
His theology may have appealed to simple-minded converts, but how was he perceived personally? Who knows—when the scroll was received, some of them may have rolled their eyes: “Oh no, not another letter from that insufferable dingbat.”
This is what passes for “rational argument” in Dr. Madison’s eyes . . .
Forgive me for resorting to a cliché, but the theology spun from Paul’s tortured brain reminds me of Macbeth’s bitter lament about life; the only words that don’t apply to Paul—darn it—are “then is heard no more.”
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
How melodramatic. This is self-refuting so I need not give it any further attention.
Photo credit: Paul in Athens, on Mars Hill, Anonymous (19th century German) [public domain / Wikimedia Commons]