Don’t gimme no theology. Just gimme the Bible! Ever heard someone say that? Well, at times theology comes in handy.
That might sound like a no-brainer coming from a pastor/seminary professor, but as a historian I much prefer interpreting a biblical passage in its historical and literary context (my task as a New Testament scholar) to systematizing various portions of Scripture around a single theological truth (the task of a theologian).
I am not, by training, a theologian. But sometimes theology comes in handy. In fact, sometimes theology comes in REALLY handy—like when Paul (a) lays out an expansive picture of judgment by works (!) in Romans 2:6-11, (b) insists that ‘the doers of the law…will be justified’ two verses later (2:13), and then maintains what appears to be precisely the opposite in the very next chapter of the letter: ‘no human being will be justified in his sight by deeds prescribed by the law’ (3:20). Yikes!
I preached on Romans 2:1-12 last Sunday. As a New Testament guy, I just wanted to explain what Paul said in this particular passage—pretty clear: ‘the doers of the law…will be justified’—and be done with it. Then I’d just turn my people loose in their small groups to sort it all out.
Ah, if only a pastor’s job was that easy! Well, for better or for worse, it’s not. The dear folks at Oceanside Christian Fellowship expect their pastor-elders to teach the whole counsel of God’s Word. Rightly so! And this is where theology—the systematization of biblical truth—comes directly into play.
I suppose we could just say (with Ed Sanders, Heikki Räisänen, et al) that Paul is hopelessly confused between Romans 2 and 3. But for those of us who read Scripture (let alone Paul!) as a coherent whole, this, of course, is not an option.
Those of you who are familiar with the debates surrounding Paul’s portrayal of eschatological judgment in Romans 2 know that evangelicals tend to take one of two positions on the passage:
VIEW ONE: Paul is speaking hypothetically. The offer of ‘eternal life’ for ‘everyone who does good’ (vv. 7, 10) is real. Due to our fallen nature, however, no one actually satisfies God’s requirements. So no one, in the final analysis, ever gains eternal life by ‘doing good’ (v. 7). Paul is setting up a contrary-to-fact scenario that he will categorically refute in the following chapter of the letter. This, of course, harmonizes nicely with what Paul says elsewhere about justification and works (Gal 2:16; Eph 2:8-9), and it eliminates the potential contradiction between 2:6-11 and Paul’s clear statement to the contrary in the following chapter of Romans.
VIEW TWO: Paul actually means what he says in Romans 2:6-11, and we ought to take the text at face value. After all, there is no indication in the immediate context that Paul is speaking in hypothetical terms. We certainly wouldn’t argue, for example, that the condemnation in vv. 8-9 is not going to be a future reality. In fact, if we (like the early Christians in Rome who first read the letter) didn’t already know what was coming in Romans 3, we would have no idea whatsoever that Paul was speaking hypothetically. And then there are all those other Bible passages that also seem to give a central place to behavior/works in determining our eternal state (Matthew 12:36; John 5:28; and, of course, James 2:14-26, just to name a few).
So what do we do with all this? We do theology! Whichever view we take!
When faced with a dilemma like the one above, theologians will generally (a) assume as biblical the view that accounts for the most passages of Scripture, and (b) interpret unclear (or less clear) texts in light of those that are more straightforward.
For example, those holding VIEW ONE argue that Paul must be speaking hypothetically primarily because of what Paul writes elsewhere about justification and the works of the law (Romans 3; Galatians 2; Ephesians 2).
Proponents of VIEW TWO must also engage in theological synthesis, since they have to make room at the table for what they assume to be clear statements in the Bible describing both justification by works and justification by faith. How do they do so? Well, these scholars generally distinguish between initial justification (when we receive Christ by faith alone) and final justification (when we are justified by ‘doing good’ at the threshold of eternity). These justifying works are typically understood to be obedience to God’s standards produced by the Holy Spirit in the lives of a genuine believer (see Romans 8:4; Philippians 2:12-13; Ephesians 2:10).
So which view does Joe take? Ah! You missed church on Sunday? Guess you’ll have to read between the lines here. The point of the post, however, is not to try to sell you on my position on Romans 2. I’m trying to help you to appreciate the centrality of theology—the systematization of biblical truth—in understanding our relationship with God and the Christian life.
In the final analysis, theology is not only necessary. It is unavoidable. Even the person who says Don’t gimme me no theology. Just gimme the Bible! does theology. [Either that, or he’s gonna be workin’ his way to heaven one day (Romans 2) and trustin’ in Jesus the next (Romans 3)!] Theological synthesis is inevitable. Indeed, theology used to be called the queen of the sciences. Either we do it well, or we do it poorly. But we all do theology. So let’s treat the lady well. She is a queen, after all!