Paul, Habakkuk, & Faithful Improvisation

In Romans 1:16-17, Paul says the following:

For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God unto salvation to everyone who is faithful, to the Jew first and also to the Greek; for the righteousness of God is revealed in it from faith(fulness) unto faith(fulness) (ἐκ πίστεως εἰς πίστιν), just as it is written, “but the righteous one will live from faith(fulness).”

I said yesterday that v. 16 is a pastoral statement of confidence in the gospel to a dispirited community.  The return of the Christian community’s former leaders and the renewed emphasis on Law-observance have produced tension and division.  There is a loss of confidence in the gospel, which is the reality of God’s mission to reclaim creation and unite humanity in Christ by the Spirit.  The radical implications of God’s new move have left many in the church unsettled.  Paul expresses confidence, however, that God is indeed unleashing his saving power through this new move in Christ rather than through Israel.

I think that this explains Paul’s enigmatic statement in v. 17b, ἐκ πίστεως εἰς πίστιν, and his quotation of Habakkuk 2:4.

Regarding ἐκ πίστεως εἰς πίστιν (“from faith[fulness] unto faith[fulness]”), there is nothing in the text of Romans that ensures any singular interpretation.  Is this God’s faithfulness that elicits believers’ faith?  Is it believers’ faith that grows, one step of faith at a time?  Any interpretation fits here, frankly.

I think it has to do with the outworking of God’s saving power that is at work among God’s faithful people, whatever form that human response of faithfulness will take and whatever God requires.  This may make sense once we consider the Habakkuk quote.

Hab. 2:4 is paradigmatic for Paul’s ministry.  It emphasizes God’s approved response to his word.  God’s approved person responds to God’s word with faithfulness, fidelity, and loyalty, however surprising the revelation or contrary to human expectations.

In Habakkuk 1, the prophet cries out to God because of the wickedness of Judah.  God answers Habakkuk by revealing his plans to judge his people by calling upon a nation more wicked than Judah–the Babylonians.  Habakkuk complains about this to God, asking how God can do this.  How can this be?  You are too pure to approve of evil!  This isn’t like you at all!

As Habakkuk 2 opens, the prophet readies himself to receive the answer.  God confirms that he will also judge the Chaldeans for their wickedness, but his intentions to use this pagan nation to judge Judah are set.  And God’s approved person will not respond with proud resistance (v. 4a), but with fidelity, faithfulness, loyalty to God no matter how upsetting or disturbing the word of the Lord is (v. 4b).  Hab. 2:4 emphasizes God’s approved response to his word that flies in the face of expectations and established assumptions of how God must act.

This passage is paradigmatic for Paul because it highlights the required posture of nimble readiness to do whatever God asks of his people.  They must be willing to adjust previously well-established patterns of behavior and thought in the light of a new word from God.

God’s ways, while surprising, are always completely consistent with God’s self-revelation.  It’s just that it’s so easy to assume that God shares our prejudices and assumptions—those conceptions that grow unnoticed and creep into our thoughts about God.

The problem is not that God’s ways are always radically changing.  It’s that we don’t know God and his ways as well as we think we do.

Paul envisions his ministry and the problems in Rome through the lens of Hab. 2:4.  The Roman church is struggling with the form of Christian faithfulness.  What shape does it take?  What does a community created and sustained by the God of Israel look like?  The church is struggling to embody Christian faithfulness whereby Jews and gentiles participate in community together.  Paul quotes Hab. 2:4 in order to emphasize that something radically new is going on in light of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ and the sending of the Spirit.  God is forming multi-ethnic communities of Jesus-followers in which Jews and non-Jews embrace one another as siblings in God’s new family.

It’s hard for us to grasp how upsetting this was for the early church.  In the experience of the first Christian generation, faithfulness to the God of Israel could only be rendered within Judaism.  The revelation of the gospel, however, is that God is now saving people without regard to their ethnicity.  Just as in Habakkuk’s day, this is something radically new—even though it is in complete continuity with God’s acting all along.

Just as with Habakkuk, this radical move of God calls for that nimble readiness to make adjustments out of loyalty and fidelity to the God of Israel.  God is doing something that challenges the assumptions and developed prejudices of how God must act, and he is calling for a Jesus-oriented faithfulness in which fidelity to the God of Israel outstrips all other loyalties and commitments.

13 thoughts on “Paul, Habakkuk, & Faithful Improvisation

  1. Justin Dodson

    I have loved your last two posts here on Romans! You did a great job of changing the tone of 1.16-17 for me, and it makes total sense in where he heads and who he is writing to. I always use that tone for the rest of the letter but not in chs.1-2. It is amazing how much Luther has influenced not only our interpretation, but our assumptions of his tone (This is not Galatians!!!).

    And today I love the way you situate Habakkuk’s concerns within the likely Jew-Gentile concerns of the Roman context! Thanks for enabling us to pursue the ever-deepening joy that comes from studying God’s word for a more robust participation in God’s purposes in the world!

  2. marknieweg

    Tim, I was thinking of Habakkuk when you posted previously – his struggle with HOW God was going to do His work. Most sermons I hear from Habakkuk usually separate the small book’s testimony to Habakkuk’s move from struggling faith in the first two chapters to restful faith (yet still with trembling) at the end of the last chapter. Even though those sermons are encouraging for those undergoing personal trials at any moment, they fail to place us disciples into the pattern of our calling to a cruciform life. The expectation is that God will deliver me in a temporal way, instead of the call to be faithful in the circumstance no matter what the outcome. That is Jesus’ move in Gethsemane. I don’t want to belittle the idea of deliverance, just that most times the expectation is deliverance this side of death in a way that vindicates our trust in God now – instead of the path of the Lord through possible suffering and humiliation to death, where vindication only comes in the resurrection. I wonder if that is why Paul begins with “I am not ashamed…” I followed that word “ashamed” on to Paul’s last circumstance of being in prison in II Timothy. He’s been abandoned, but is keeping his testimony of his crucified Messiah, and challenging Timothy to do the same. What a challenge!

    1. timgombis

      Good words, Mark! In Romans, the notes of vindication are all future, at the day of Christ. And the present mode of existence for God’s people is cruciform and co-suffering with Christ. Only those people will be vindicated at the future day. In the present we’re assured of God’s power to help us persevere, but there’s no assurance of temporal vindication. Perhaps that’s an unhelpful & unhealthy reading of Rom. 8:28!?

      1. S Wu

        Good thoughts, Mark and Tim. I find the prophet’s prayer in Habakkuk 3 very interesting. It is a prayer of a righteous sufferer, who is determined to wait on God’s eventual vindication despite the present/imminent suffering. I think the call to suffer with Christ and be glorified with him in Romans 8:17 is the key to understand Paul’s view of suffering. The glory Paul speaks of is certainly about God’s future vindication. But I think there may be an element of present reality as well. It is in our faithful cruciform life that we reflect God’s glory. God’s program of restoring and transforming his creation is further spoken of in Romans 8:29, 30, I think. We are being conformed to the image of the Son, and, as we follow his cruciform life, we reflect God’s glory as his image-bearers.

        This is of course a radical notion, both then and now. “Glory” is not a reflection of success and power (of the Roman Empire or of modern/postmodern human achievements), according to Paul. Rather, to be truly human is to be conformed to Christ’s way of life, not least his suffering.

        I think Paul’s vision of communal life in Romans 12-15 helps us to understand this further. A love-centered multi-ethnic community (in which members share one another’s joy and pain) is one that reflects God’s glory.

        (Great posts on Romans, Tim. I’ve been enjoying them.)

      2. timgombis

        Very well put, S. I’m convinced that Paul reconfigures the identity of the people of God there in Rom. 8 — it’s not those who are “of Israel,” or who bear the marks of Jewish identity. It’s those who suffer with Christ who will be glorified with him. 8:17 is a climactic statement in the letter’s argument.

  3. Andrew

    If the Roman church were paganized Israelites of the House of Israel struggling with issues of faithfulness of whatever form, it is not surprising Paul used Habakkuk, since God’s reply to Habakkuk in [Hab 2] was specifically about being faithful while encountering God ordained punishment.

    The Israelites in Habakkuk’s time were facing Babylon. There would be three other beast nations as well (according to Daniel) – Medo-Persia, Greece, and Rome. The Israelites in Rome were only facing the last of Daniel’s beasts.

    It’s not so out of character really – what Paul was saying…

  4. Allen Browne

    You’re right, Tim: the Jew/Gentile issue is central in Habakkuk. When the prophet laments wickeness in Judah, God corrects his ethnocentricity: “Look among the nations …” (Hab 1:5).
    This seems to be the focus of both the salvation/judgement elements of Hab 2 (including 2:14) and also the psalm/prayer of Hab 3.
    Do you think this whole context (God’s rule over Gentiles and Jews) was as crucial to Paul as the central vision of how this operates (Hab 2:4b)?

    1. timgombis

      I’ll have to give that some thought, Allen. That would be in keeping with how Paul quotes Scriptural texts, drawing on larger contexts rather than simply the words he cites in isolation.

  5. frostspeaks

    Good post. I think of this verse in this way, “from faith (of the Jews) to faith (of the Gentiles). The gospel is the power to “all” who believe.


  6. Andrew

    I don’t agree that Habakkuk was about Jew / Gentile relations. One would have to completely take Habakkuk out of context, be ignorant of the difference between Israelite and Jew and otherwise not understand what was happening to Israel/Judah historically. This view is the product of historical ignorance and naivity.

    The audience of Habakkuk was the House of Judah who was being threatened by the Babylonians, making Habakkuk a contemporary of Daniel (whose vision has something to add). Whereas the audience of Romans was the House of Israel (how many times did Paul call his audience ‘my brethren’ and speak of our forefather Abraham?).

    The threat in both cases was a particular group of nations chosen specifically to act the foil to Isarelites of both Houses: House of Judah the the House of Israel (or has no one read Daniel 8?). The threat in both cases was specific (not some generic ‘gentile’) and historically related, denoted a major theme in OT prophecy from Babylon to Rome. The difference would be that the House of Judah would return from Babylon (as in Habakkuk’s case). In this context, the Chaldeans would be scattered as a consequence of their interaction with Judah from the promise of [Gen 12:3][Num 24:9]. Whereas the House of Israel would not return but continue their affliction until the arrival of the Messiah. Although Medo-Persia, Greece and Rome would also be ripped apart internally (cursed) due to their interaction with paganized Israelites, Rome had the particular distinction of ending the Babylonian cycle for crucifying the Messiah.

    Thus Habakkuk’s admonishment “Behold, his soul is puffed up; it is not upright within him, but the righteous shall live by his faith.” [Hab 2:4] to the House of Judah is making an appeal that is contextually different from the one Paul is citing. In Habakkuk’s case the appeal is using Abrahamic faith to continue belief in God’s promises. With respect to many in Babylon this fulfilment would happen in their lifetime. In Paul’s case, although he appeals for his audience to see the crucifixion of the Messiah as the fulfilment of so many of God’s promises, nevertheless he’s using Habakukk’s quote to reveal who survives such ordeals. Paul is saying (in not so many words) that both in Habakkuks time, and in Roman times those, who exhibited the same faith (in God’s promises) Abraham exhibited, would be the ones ‘not cut-off’.

    The subtext here is that if God was faithful in his promise to the House of Judah, and God delivered unto death the shepherd of the House of David, as kinsmen redeemer for the House of Israel (who Paul called ‘Greek’ meaning the Israelite elect of the third Satrapy mentioned in [1 Peter 1:1]), than God has been faithful in true in all that he promised.

    God’s wrath against his elect for their sinfulness was spent. It was completely spent in Christ. However, to those who set themselves against his elect and his authority, wrath was still being stored up (again as part of ‘I will curse those that curse you, and bless them that bless you’ except this promise now included the crucified Davidic King)

  7. Pingback: Timothy Gombis on Paul’s Letter to the Romans | Imagine with Scripture

  8. Pingback: Timothy Gombis on Paul’s Letter to the Romans | Imagine with Scripture

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