Magazine article The Christian Century

New Testament: New Books That Are Shaping Discussions in New Testament, Global Christianity, American Religious History, and Practical Theology

Magazine article The Christian Century

New Testament: New Books That Are Shaping Discussions in New Testament, Global Christianity, American Religious History, and Practical Theology

Article excerpt

Modern biblical interpretation has been dominated by historical-critical methods and has been wary of allowing contemporary questions of meaning to influence the interpretive task. But some of the best new books in the field attempt to use the tools of historical analysis in conjunction with other disciplines, such as science, philosophies of personhood, theology, gender studies, and Christian ethics.

In The Emergence of Sin: The Cosmic Tyrant in Romans (Oxford University Press), Matthew Croasmun reflects upon how Paul's language of sin shifts in Romans 5-8 from "sins" to something cosmic and active, something that seems to have its own agency. In these chapters, Sin (which Croasmun renders as a proper noun) enslaves, imprisons, deceives, kills, and exercises dominion over its subjects. Is Paul simply speaking hyperbolically when he personifies sin? Many regard Paul's language of cosmic powers acting upon individuals as contradicting our modern view of humans as individuals who have their own agency and are responsible for their own actions. Or does Paul think of Sin as an actual person, capable of acting upon other persons?

Croasmun believes Romans 5-8 portrays Sin as an emergent power: a "superorganism with a group mind emergent from a complex network of individual human persons." In other words, Sin emerges out of sinning individuals and institutions, at which point it can exert further influence back upon these individuals and institutions. Sin in Paul functions in a multilevel manner that relates the individual, the cosmic, and the social. Croasmun's multilevel analysis of sin--as personal, mythological, and structural--has further implications for how interpreters understand Paul's language of "the body of Christ" (Rom. 12:1-8) and "the mind of Christ" (1 Cor. 2:16).

Susan Grove Eastman shares with Croasmun a concern that when biblical scholars resist conversation with science, philosophy, sociology, and other disciplines, they fail to grasp the meaning of Paul's anthropology. In Paul and the Person: Reframing Paul's Anthropology (Eerdmans), Eastman constructs a three-way conversation between the Stoic philosopher Epictetus, Paul and his language about the body and the person, and recent philosophies of neuroscience, the mind, and personhood.

Epictetus argues against making oneself dependent upon other persons and social factors. Since knowledge of oneself is not related to knowledge of other individuals, there is no real potential for a relationally constituted self. In contrast, philosophies of science and the mind consistently portray the self as irreducibly embodied and intensely intersubjective. Humans are not isolated individuals; we are constituted by our social and environmental location. Eastman refers to this relational nature of human identity as the "second-person perspective."

Such a perspective, she argues, helps make sense of Paul's language of sin as a power that acts on humans (Rom. 7), his participatory language about another agent--Christ--who lives and acts in his people (Gal. 2), and his account of the preexistent Christ imitating and assimilating himself to humanity (Phil. 2). Eastman emphasizes that Paul's portrait of the person is not that of an isolated, autonomous individual. Paul's language about human bodies is almost always qualified by their relationship to other life-giving or death-dealing realities (whether Christ, sin, the flesh, or death). In Paul's vision, we are embodied creatures embedded within social and physical environments who need radically new relationships and systems that can only be created through Christ's entrance into the human condition. In the incarnation, Christ assimilates to our human condition and breaks the power of sin and the flesh, thereby reconstituting humanity and placing us in a new relational network with Christ, the Spirit, and all of God's people.

The essays in Johannine Ethics: The Moral World of the Gospel and Epistles of John (Fortress), edited by Sherri Brown and Christopher W. …

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