The Constitution of the “Cultic”

The Constitution of the “Cultic” November 11, 2014

God set Jesus forth as a “hilasterion in His blood” in order to achieve redemption (Romans 3:25).

Theodore Jennings (Outlaw Justice, 66), insistent on reading Paul politically, can’t quite make sense of this: “The text connects loyalty to blood. And this is exactly what a reader of Paul might expect, since elsewhere Paul has said that the messiah has ‘become obedient to death, even death on a cross’ (Philippians 2:8). Obedience and faithfulness are quite strongly connected in Paul. . . . Recalls that Paul’s goal in 1:5 is to bring about the obedience of faithfulness. Thus, the loyalty of the messiah is what leads to his death and so to his shed blood. But this is expressed at this point in quasi-religious terms (propitiation), that is, in a still-veiled or coded terminology. Paul seems to be wrapping political dynamite in a quasi-cultic covering.”

His other references to “cultic” acts (e.g., his denial that baptism in Romans 6 is “cultic”) betray a similar disdain for the cultic.

But as much as Jennings wants to (and does) escape the confines of a privatized reading of Paul and Romans, these anti-cultic gestures land him squarely in modernity. The category of “the cultic” as used in modern scholarship, and as used by Jennings here, is entirely a product of modern notions of “religion.” Cultus is an ancient term, but the cultus dei wasn’t viewed as detached from “political” nor seen as a “veil” of the political.

Better to say: For Paul, the cultic is political, and God’s provision of a hilasterion by the blood of Jesus is precisely the way He brings His justice into this disordered world.

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