Body Language in Romans, Pt. 3

Over the last few weeks I’ve noted that Paul’s letter to the Romans is a pastoral letter to a church struggling to maintain unity in the midst of developing conflict.

Paul’s narrative of the human body from corruption to transformation runs through the letter as a subtext.  It supports his contention that all Christians in Rome (Jewish and non-Jewish) are subject to corruption and all are transformed on the same basis—by God’s free grace.  They all participate in that human journey, which puts them all on the same level.

As I indicated the other day, Paul’s theological narrative of the body (individual bodies and the gathered body) has significant theological implications.  I’ll mention just a few:

First, God’s “salvation” is not an elimination of embodied human life but the transformation of it.  The evangelicalism with which I’m familiar tends to denigrate the body, associating sinfulness with embodied existence.  The hope, then, is getting out of the body reaching a “spiritual” plane of existence.

In Romans, however, Christian hope is not “getting out of here and escaping to heaven” for an eternally disembodied existence.  Christian hope is for the glorification of God’s children (Rom. 8:18-25)—the glorious transformation of our earthly bodies to true humanity.  Our hope is one day to flourish on a transformed earth as transformed people.

Second, as we await this final transformation, our current Christian existence has everything to do with how we conduct ourselves as bodies and our participation in the gathered body.  That is, growing in Christ means cultivating embodied habits and practices that manifest the character of Christ.

If Paul says that this means that Christians with significant differences need to learn to “welcome each other” (Rom. 15:5-7), then we ought to explore the many ways that we can do this as bodies in the gathered body.  Are there communal patterns or corporate practices in our church that marginalize anyone?  Those need to be eliminated and replaced by corporate practices that draw others in and make them feel at home.

Third, if Paul writes about God’s saving moves in terms of how God is reclaiming bodies, then we must reconsider how we bifurcate existence into “spiritual” and “physical.”  Christians sometimes are hesitant to contribute resources to meet the physical needs of others unless we feel that “spiritual” purposes are being honored.  We should reconsider this dichotomy.  Part of growing in Christ and embodying participation in salvation must involve caring for bodies as the body of Christ.

Fourth, and pressing this point a bit more strategically, the current embodiment of salvation involves specific bodily conduct.  Paul confronts the error that the manner in which the current possession of salvation is embodied is by behavior that makes one Jewish.  Just because one is Jewish does not guarantee future bodily transformation.  So, what does guarantee that?  Paul’s answer comes in Rom. 8:17—all those who suffer with Christ will be glorified with Christ.

That is, we possess salvation if we participate in our bodily practices in the cruciform life of Jesus by the Spirit.  That means that contemporary Christian existence must involve the corporate exploration of concrete communal practices that embody the cross-shaped life of Jesus.

Where such explorations are absent, we should consider any hope of future glorification to have no basis.

Lastly, we embody salvation by pursuing unity as a body.  It is a tragic irony that this letter, intended to unify a corporate body in Rome, is often the battleground over which dogmatic wars are fought.  One wonders if Paul’s point has been grossly missed.

There’s much more and much else to be said about this narrative thread, and other theological conclusions to be drawn from it, but I’ll leave it there for now.  Other thoughts about how Paul narrates the body?

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11 responses to “Body Language in Romans, Pt. 3

  • Greg

    Two questions, if I may.

    TG WROTE:
    That is, we possess salvation if we participate in our bodily practices in the cruciform life of Jesus by the Spirit. That means that contemporary Christian existence must involve the corporate exploration of concrete communal practices that embody the cross-shaped life of Jesus.

    Where such explorations are absent, we should consider any hope of future glorification to have no basis.
    ———————————
    I’m with you up to the statement about the cruciform life of Jesus in the Spirit involving “the corporate exploration of concrete communal practices that embody the cross-shaped life of Jesus.” Which is not to say I’m ag’in you. It’s just that don’t see how you get from one statement about possessing salvation (which almost has to be understood on an individual basis) to corporate practice. Which seems to make individual salvation dependent on the corporate life of those in assembly with him/her.

    Which seems not to follow from what you have said, but may follow from something you haven’t yet said. Or have I misunderstood?

    Second, you used the term “narrative thread.” Have you heard this term before or is it original with you as far as you know?

    • timgombis

      Thanks for these, Greg. I’m not thinking exclusively in individual or corporate terms. Identity was more (not absolutely) corporate in the ancient world. But to “be saved” is something embodied in corporate practice (loving one another, confessing sins, serving, being served, etc.). So the community in Rome that enjoys God’s salvation must embody that salvation through renewed social practices. I don’t know if that helps at all.

      On “narrative thread,” I don’t know that I’ve coined it or heard it elsewhere. I actually saw Paul’s narrative of the body running through Romans a awhile back and the only way I could describe it was as a narrative strand or thread.

  • S Wu

    Hi Tim, great posts on the “body” language in Romans! Here are my thoughts on the “body” in Romans 8:23, where Paul speaks of the “redemption of our body”.

    I think it is significant that Paul uses the first person plural throughout the passages in 8:14-17; 18-23, which indicates that he has the community in mind, not just individuals. But here the “body” is singular in the Greek, although Paul says “our” body. Many commentators/translators translate this as “our bodies”. I wonder whether Paul has in mind the “corporate” body of Christ? That is, he is in fact thinking about the Jew-Gentile community. In fact, the Jew-Gentile language is by and large absent in Romans 5-8. I wonder whether Paul has in mind the new humanity in Christ (which consists of both Jews and Gentiles) in 8:23?

    I note that 8:19-23 is very much about the renewal of creation, which, in turn, is about God’s purpose of restoring and transforming humanity and the entire cosmos. The redemption of the body in 8:23 (the resurrection) is part of this purpose. Like you, I think 8:17 speaks of the Christ-community’s embodiment of cruciform life of Christ. In light of this, our cruciform life is an integral part of God’s plan of transforming the whole cosmos! How amazing and counter-cultural, for it is in suffering-with-Christ that the cosmos will be eventually redeemed.

    Within the context of Romans, bodily life is of course about communal life. The shared-suffering of believers in the house churches in Rome is an expression of their unity, which, I think, is one of the things that is mentioned in Romans 12-15. (See the notion of mourning and rejoicing together in Rom 12:9f.)

    • gjohnston2244

      MR. WU WROTE:
      I think it is significant that Paul uses the first person plural throughout the passages in 8:14-17; 18-23, which indicates that he has the community in mind, not just individuals.
      ————————
      I never have found this a persuasive argument for a corporate interpretation of passages like this. If he were intending to to speak of us as INDIVIDUALS, what form of the personal pronoun would he use? My suspicion would be first person plural. We as individuals or we corporately. Same pronoun. It’s the only one available. I’ve heard many commentators make this argument, and it seems to assume Paul had a larger grammatical arsenal at his disposal than the Greek language itself had to offer.

      • timgombis

        I do think the suggestion carries some weight, especially in Romans where “body” language is ambiguous. That is, he moves in and out of speaking of bodies and the corporate body, sometimes sprinkling in speech about Jesus’ body, too. In fact, in Rom. 7:24, I think “the body of this death” (or, “this body dominated by death”), he has in mind the corporate body, perverted by the dominion and corrupting effects of Sin and Death.

      • gjohnston2244

        You’re actually making my point although I’m not convinced you are truly appreciating it. I’m not arguing against a corporate reading of “we.” I’m simply arguing against it having a corporate meaning simply on the basis of grammatical form of the personal pronoun. “We” does not on the basis of its first-person plural form alone mean “corporate we.” On the basis of grammar alone, it could refer to a bunch of us individuals. Your appeal to the context (Tim) pretty much makes my point. If the grammatical form necessitated a corporate interpretation, then it should not be necessary to appeal to the context. Simply wheel out Blass, DeBrunner and Funk, or its modern equivalent.

        But then I’m a linguist by training and not a theologian.

      • gjohnston2244

        Let me try saying it another way. I think we traditionally underestimate the importance of the corporate life in Paul’s understanding of the gospel. I believe Ephesians is the most comprehensive statement of “Paul’s gospel.” But it’s because I’ve read some of Paul’s Bible and especially Isaiah. On the other hand, if one can’t make his case from the context and the “argument thread” throughout the letter, one will not get any help from the grammar. Simple fact: the grammar will follow the context’s lead. It could go either way. It could mean both. We need to jettison the grammar argument. I don’t know how it has survived this long.

    • timgombis

      Great thoughts, S., thanks. I noticed that, too, about 8:17 and I do wonder if he has in mind the transformation of the community in Rome together. It would be an interesting thought, and would make sense, actually, of reading the “I” in Romans as the church in Rome, which is what I’m leaning toward.

      Have you entertained reading ktisis in 8:19-23 as “the creature?” I’m still thinking about that one. I can’t remember who argued that in the Gordon Fee Festschrift.

      • S Wu

        Hi GJohnston, I agree that we should not overplay the use of first person plural. My point was that we should not draw a sharp distinction between the individual and community. By “community… not just individuals,” I do not mean “community, not individuals.” Hope that clarifies things a bit.

        Tim, very interesting thought about the identity of the “I”. I must admit that I have changed my mind a couple of times. The argument from Rom 5:1-21 suggests to me that Paul is speaking of the creation of a new Christ-humanity/Christ-community out of Adamic humanity. And the “I” in Rom 7 may point to a humanity that is under Sin’s power. Within the larger argument of the letter, and given the Jew-Gentile language in Rom 1-4; 9-11; 12-15, the “I” may well refer to the church in Rome??

        Very interesting idea about the ktisis in 8:19-23. Very refreshing. I must admit that at this stage I have been following Ed Adams’ view of the ktisis in 8:19-23. That is, it refers to non-human creation. According to Prof Beverly Roberts Gaventa, this is a near-consensus in recent scholarship, although she disagrees with it and advocates that it refers to the entire creation – both human and non-human. What are the implications if ktisis refers to “the creature”? What do you have in mind? What does it mean when “the creature” travails and groans?

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