Verses & Controversies.

Revisiting Romans 1:17, Reviewing Context

That girl in red. 13 September 2008. It was love at first sight. I fell in love with her the first time I saw her last year at the Manila International Book Fair at the Mall of Asia along Manila Bay, and that feeling continues to this day. Can love at first sight happen again? It did. I couldn’t take my eyes off her. I had to take her home. I’m glad I did. She was mine.



This girl in red. 07 February 2009. At home, 5 months later, she remains faithful; she remains seductive. She is dressed in scarlet, inviting to the eyes; her silent eyes are open, her body gently yields to the touch – she is the NRSV, the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible. My Little Red Book, my softbound copy. The silent eyes are the multiple thumb index tabs. On the computer table next to this one I’m using, she intrudes into my thoughts, and she says, silently, strangely: ‘Context.’ My Little Red Bible leads me to think:

Context is the silence that gives meaning to a sound; context is the river of words that give significance to the splash of a noun or a verb.

No matter whose, the Bible is all context. At home, we have always had several Bible versions ever since my wife Amparo and I attended the ME, Marriage Encounter Weekend Seminar in Tagaytay City in January 1991, sponsored by the BLD, Bukas Loob sa Diyos Catholic Charismatic Community, Los Baños Chapter. The ME was designed to strengthen your marriage – it saved mine. The Bible was designed to strengthen your faith – it returned mine.

The many versions I’m referring to are: New American Bible, Christian Community Bible, Jerusalem Bible, New International Version, Today’s English Version, King James Version, New King James Versionall those versions at home all at the same time.

3 reasons why my wife and I have 1 faith, 1 home, 7 Bibles:

One, I thought that since the Bible is not only a very boring read but very difficult to comprehend, so why not read several versions at the same time to help yourself understand? When you do, you will note variations in contexts between translations.

Two, I’ve always been a wide reader. At the time of our ME, I had already discovered from reading the Reader’s Digest and Rudolf Flesch (Readability Formula) and Edward de Bono (Lateral Thinking), that wide reading does not only make you an exact man (learned) but also, if not more so, a more creative thinker and writer – once you learn to open your mind to dissimilar contexts, emphasis on dissimilar or unalike. To be creative, you need to take the untaken, know the unknown paths.

Three, Bible versions have their own biases. You can see all those biases if you read all those versions. To identify the bias, you have to recognize the context.

Lately, I have been biased towards the NRSV (2006, Makati City: St Pauls, 1598 pages). I didn’t know it before but it turns out it’s very easy to explain – I had loved memorizing verses from the King James, and when I looked at the NRSV, checking out Romans 12, which for the last 17 years has been my favorite, like I told you, it was love at first sight. Such magnificent language as this (Romans 12: 2)!

Be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God – what is good and acceptable and perfect.

Perfect!

At Wikipedia, I have just learned that the NRSV is a revision of the RSV, Revised Standard Version, which is a revision of the glorious King James. I had always loved the language of the King James; I believe it behooves the Diety. My copy of the NRSV is the Catholic Edition.

Today’s part of my continuing Romans story started at the 29th Manila book fair on the 2nd day, 13 September 2008, when I bought my Little Red Book, when I was guest of New Day Publishers, the publishing arm of the Christian Literature Society of the Philippines, where Christian refers to Union Theological, Iglesia Evangelica Metodista, Episcopal, United Methodist, Lutheran, Iglesia Filipina Independiente, St Andrew’s Theological, Union Theological. A rainbow of faiths, if I may say so. As I’m Roman Catholic, I’m glad New Day does publish Catholic books.

Incidentally, with Ms Bezalie Bautista Uc-Kung as Executive Director (she still is), I used to write-edit-publish the iQ, a monthly review of New Day publications, August to December 1996, 12 years ago. The name ‘iQ’ was mine, and so was the slogan, ‘Mindful of man.’ It was a monthly newsletter, 4 pages, a one-man job, and I was able to come out with 5 issues, using Microsoft Word 97. (I don’t remember why iQ stopped: Did they run out of budget, or did I run out of time?) In the December issue, among my others articles, of Ilongo native and UP alumnus, professor, poet and Silliman alumnus Ricaredo Demetillo and his book of poem, The Distance From Self To Christ (1974), I wrote:

His book came up because I am writing of Christmas in the Christian (not the other way around). The Christian who sings on the page, on air, in the bathroom, or in his heart.

In that book, Ricaredo says, ‘I affirm the essential validity of the Christian outlook.’ I agree with Ricaredo, except that I know that by ‘Christian’ a great many people would exclude the Roman Catholic, which I am. I forgive them.

It just happens that today, 07 February 2009, looking at my copy of the Little Red Book, my NRSV, I feel the urge to go beyond that; I want to write of the Christian in the Christian, based on the New Testament verse Romans 1: 17, which has been called ‘Luther’s Verse’ (Tom Browning, posttenebraslux.com). This verse, that is, the insight that the Augustinian monk (Roman Catholic) Martin Luther gained from it, gave birth to the Protestant Church, out of the womb of the Roman Catholic Church. That is to say, the context of the Protestant faith is the Catholic faith. Now then, I can say that the Catholic is the Original; the Protestant is a Revised Version.

I’m more interested in the New than in the Old Testament; these are New Testament times and, anyway, the Old is quoted in the New when relevant. Also because even today, the Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant versions of the New Testament are identical (christianbiblereference.org). So, my personal view is that what gave birth to Luther’s notion of sola fide (by faith alone) is context.

Because of his insight gained from Romans 1: 17, Martin Luther’s became the face that launched a thousand ships. In fact, it’s more than that; today, there are 29,000 Protestant denominations, according to Scott Hahn (quoted in defendlife.org). (Scott is a Presbyterian convert to Catholicism. He is a phenomenon; he has opened my eyes on more things Roman Catholic – like God is a family – and I thank God for him.)

Of Romans 1: 17, in ‘An exposition of the Book of Romans,’ Tom Lyon says (04 February 2007, windows49.blogspot.com):

Verse 17 is ... in one sense responsible for the Protestant Reformation. It was this text in particular which dawned upon (Martin) Luther, and thus caused one of the major upheavals in the world, and one of the greatest rediscoveries of Gospel truth. It was, in fact, for Luther a revelation of the righteousness of God. We’ve been told that this whole theme of the doctrine of justification, which is, of course, the theme and thesis of Romans, is the (principal) rampart of the Christian religion. It is the high point on the horizon from which all the other slopes descend. It is that which is the controlling principle of all truth, especially all saving truth, the doctrine of justification by faith, for which reason Luther called it, of course, the article of a standing or falling church.

Tom says that with that insight, Luther makes ‘one of the great rediscoveries of Gospel truth,’ which is ‘the doctrine of justification by faith,’ and that on this a church stands or falls. I understand that that is essentially the Protestant stand.

I find that acceptable only in part, as I see that Luther’s interpretation is in the context of only 1 sentence in Romans 1. Can that interpretation stand in the context within the paragraph? What about the context within the section? What about the context within the chapter? Above all, how does it stand in the context of the whole book of Romans?

Context is always crucial – change the context, and the meaning of a word or phrase changes. In fact, context is key even in heredity; we have this: ‘Genetic effects can be altered by their surroundings, and this determines the inheritance of traits such as flower color and the likelihood of cancer’ (H Frederick Nijhout, ‘The importance of context in genetics,’ americanscientist.org).

The Encarta Dictionary (Microsoft Office 2003 or MSN Encarta) defines context thus: the words, phrases, or passages that come before and after a particular word or passage in a speech or piece of writing and help to explain its full meaning.

Helpful, but I think online and offline Encarta needs a revision. It is not the words or phrases but only the passages that help explain the full meaning of a word, phrase or passage. If you get the context of a word using another word, what you get is certainly out of context. The meaning assigned to a word is in context if such meaning conforms with the meanings of the other phrases taken together. The ultimate measure of context is in its relation to the whole, as if it were a piece of a jigsaw puzzle that must fit exactly in the Big Picture.

For this little study on context, first let us compare 5 different versions of Romans 1: 17:

New International Version
For in the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: ‘The righteous will live by faith.’

New King James Version
For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith; as it is written, ‘The just shall live by faith.’

Jerusalem Bible
Since this is what reveals the justice of God to us: it shows how faith leads to faith, or as scripture says:
The upright man finds life through faith.

English Standard Version
For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith, as it is written, ‘The one who by faith is righteous shall live.’

New Revised Standard Version
For in it the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith; as it is written, ‘The one who is righteous will live by faith.’

I find all 5 versions essentially the same in their meaning and manner of saying it. In the context of the preceding words in all versions, to ‘live by faith’ or to ‘(find) life through faith’ or ‘by faith ... shall live’ is to me to receive the faith and to live the faith and not simply to have the faith. I believe God justifies man when man believes, and that justification continues only if man lives what he believes.

I agree with Martin Luther when he writes of ‘the passive righteousness with which merciful God justifies us by faith’ (‘Martin Luther’s Account Of His Own Conversion’ by Romans 1: 17, homepage.mac.com). But I disagree with him when he interprets ‘He who through faith is righteous shall live’ as still calling for passive faith. Live is a noun; it is also a verb. We are justified by faith; we cannot continue to live righteously except if we live the faith that God bestows on us by grace.

Having said that, it is proper to ask whether in fact I myself am interpreting Romans 1: 17 in adequate context. And my answer is no, I’m not. I must interpret that verse in the context of all of Romans 1, at the very least.

Now then, here are the verses of the whole chapter of Romans 1, from 1 to 32 from the NIV, the most popular Bible version of all, and which is acceptable to both Protestants and Roman Catholics:

1 Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle and set apart for the gospel of God – 2 the gospel he promised beforehand through his prophets in the Holy Scriptures 3 regarding his Son, who as to his human nature was a descendant of David, 4 and who through the Spirit of holiness was declared with power to be the Son of God by his resurrection from the dead: Jesus Christ our Lord. 5 Through him and for his name's sake, we received grace and apostleship to call people from among all the Gentiles to the obedience that comes from faith. 6 And you also are among those who are called to belong to Jesus Christ.

7 To all in Rome who are loved by God and called to be saints: Grace and peace to you from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ.

8 First, I thank my God through Jesus Christ for all of you, because your faith is being reported all over the world. 9 God, whom I serve with my whole heart in preaching the gospel of his Son, is my witness how constantly I remember you 10 in my prayers at all times; and I pray that now at last by God's will the way may be opened for me to come to you.

11 I long to see you so that I may impart to you some spiritual gift to make you strong – 12 that is, that you and I may be mutually encouraged by each other's faith. 13 I do not want you to be unaware, brothers, that I planned many times to come to you (but have been prevented from doing so until now) in order that I might have a harvest among you, just as I have had among the other Gentiles.

14 I am obligated both to Greeks and non-Greeks, both to the wise and the foolish. 15 That is why I am so eager to preach the gospel also to you who are at Rome.

16 I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile. 17 For in the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: ‘The righteous will live by faith.’

18 The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness, 19 since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. 20 For since the creation of the world God's invisible qualities – his eternal power and divine nature – have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse.

21 For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. 22 Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools 23 and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like mortal man and birds and animals and reptiles.

24 Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another. 25 They exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator – who is forever praised. Amen.

26 Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural relations for unnatural ones. 27 In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed indecent acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their perversion.

28 Furthermore, since they did not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God, he gave them over to a depraved mind, to do what ought not to be done. 29 They have become filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice. They are gossips, 30 slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant and boastful; they invent ways of doing evil; they disobey their parents; 31 they are senseless, faithless, heartless, ruthless. 32 Although they know God's righteous decree that those who do such things deserve death, they not only continue to do these very things but also approve of those who practice them.

That is context. Only from the whole of Romans 1 can we adequately derive the context of Romans 1: 17. Now, note the following selections:

‘... We received grace and apostleship to call people ... to the obedience that comes from faith’ (verse 5) – After receiving faith by the grace of God, you still have to obey the will of God. You can’t have your grace and shirk it too.

‘To all ... who are loved by God and called to be saints’ (verse 7) – You cannot be a saint, wear your halo, and twiddle your thumb.

‘... your faith is being reported all over the world’ (verse 8) – If there are no outward signs, if you’re all faith and no works, what is there to report to the world?

‘God, whom I serve ... in preaching the gospel of his Son’ (verse 9) – You can’t serve without working. I’m serious about my writing, and sometimes I’m funny, but I have to work at both. You cannot preach well if you don’t work at it.

‘... to impart to you some spiritual gift to make you strong’ (verse 11) – You must exercise the muscles of your faith, or they will atrophy. That applies to both the preacher and preached.

‘... that you and I may be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith’ (verse 12) – I don’t think I can be encouraged by your faith when you have only your faith to show and no works.

‘... that I might have a harvest among you’ (verse 13) – Even among those who have faith, he who has faith has work to do. The harvest is plenty, the workers are few.

‘... the righteous will live by faith’ or ‘he who through faith is righteous shall live’ (verse 17 ) – You still have to live what you believe. I believe, therefore I exist; I love, therefore I live.

‘... all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness’ (verse 18) – The wicked this way comes. There is much work to do for those who have faith!

‘... they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him’ (verse 21) – How do you glorify God or give thanks to him? It is not sufficient to sing praises to him. You glorify God with your life, not your lips.

‘... they became fools’ (verse 22) – They had faith but they became foolishly proud of their knowledge.

‘... (they) exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images’ (verse 23) – You cannot have faith and yet exchange that faith for only what your heart desires, for idols of the tribe.

‘They exchanged the truth of God for a lie’ (verse 25) – Your works are your mirror that reflects on your faith.

‘Even their women exchanged natural relations for unnatural ones’ (verse 26) – If you believe in God, how can you behave like animals?

‘In the same way the men abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another’ (verse 27) – If you believe in God, how can you behave like beasts?

‘... they did not ... retain the knowledge of God’ (verse 28) – You have to keep the faith, or faith will not keep you.

‘They have become filled with every kind of wickedness’ (verse 29) – If you don’t practice your faith, you can become filled with iniquity.

‘... they invent ways of doing evil; they disobey their parents’ (verse 30 ) – If you don’t practice your faith, you will practice sin.

‘... they are senseless, faithless, heartless, ruthless’ (verse 31) – If you don’t keep your faith, you will lose it.

Context is everything. Like, in what context is Barack Obama saying, ‘Change we can believe in’ – what change? what belief? You cannot build a vocabulary by simply memorizing words – you have to be able to use them in the context of a sentence, better yet a paragraph, much better yet a whole chapter. In limited context, Romans 1: 17 tells me that faith is enough; sola fide, faith alone is necessary, and it comes from God. In full context, the whole of Romans 1 tells me this:

Life is like science, as it is both theory and practice. Faith is theory, works is practice. Faith without works is not keeping the faith.

Yes, I see ‘the doctrine of justification’ as the very ‘theme and thesis of Romans,’ as I have seen it in Romans 1 alone. Just grammatically speaking, the one that says in part ‘to call ... to obedience that comes from faith’ is the topic sentence of Romans 1, the sentence that leads to the rest of it. ‘Obedience that comes from faith’ is the subject of Romans 1. With your faith, you are called to obedience – that is your justification. Works is the context of Faith – and you better believe it!

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