Paul the Elaborator
By Randy Heffner
“The wind blows where it wishes and you hear the sound of it, but do not know where it comes from and where it is going; so is everyone who is born of the spirit.” – Jesus, John 3:8
If you hang around Christians long enough, and if you talk from time to time about Bible study topics and experiences, sooner or later someone will express a wish that the apostle Paul would speak more directly and use more punctuation. He can wander a bit, so it seems, with many digressions, run-on sentences, and elaborations on top of elaborations. Does he have to beat so much around the bush? For that matter, one might ask why Jesus spoke in stories, similes, and metaphors instead of delivering a nice clear, direct set of doctrinal propositions. But people don't really question his style because he's, well, God and all that. So let's stick with Paul, and specifically his letter to those in Rome.
In Romans, Paul endeavors to tell the world how the whole Jesus thing works: Why Jesus came, what God did, how we get saved, what about the Jews, and such. The last time I checked a four spiritual laws tract, it looked all very simple and easy. Not so for Paul. Here's a partial list of the dichotomous juxtapositions Paul finds important for us to consider:
When we agree with God's Law and pursue it with vigor, we fail miserably (Rom 7:23), but sometimes Gentiles do the Law instinctively, even without the Law (Rom 2:14)
Clear physical evidence of circumcision is not proof that one is circumcised (Rom 2:25-28)
Only doers of the Law are justified (Rom 2:13), but righteousness is apart from the Law (Rom 3:28)
Although the psalmists cry out for God to uphold the Law (Ps 79, 94, 109), God shows his righteousness by passing over the Law (Rom 3:25-26)
Despite God giving a codified system of 600+ rigid laws, the Law is actually a spiritual thing (Rom 7:14)
Although we are free, we are to be slaves (Rom 6:18)
Righteousness by faith is the new covenant, but righteousness by faith has always been a thing (Rom 4:3)
Rather than making the Law passé, salvation by faith somehow establishes the Law (Rom 3:31)
And actually Paul talks of three laws: God's Law, the law of sin and death, and the law of the spirit of life in Jesus (Rom 8:2)
Each of these could easily be the launching point for doctoral research at your favorite seminary – it would be no surprise if most have been. But what about this: Why didn't Paul just write a clear and simple A-B-C-D four spiritual laws guide for salvation?
I think a certain Maria can help us here. The one dancing in the mountain meadow, hearing music that isn't there, and claiming that the hills have vocal chords. The one from The Sound of Music.
Maria's always wanted to be a nun, so she goes to the convent. Before long, the other nuns have a bit of a conundrum on their hands. Being a nun requires focus and serious attention to the rigorous rules and details of convent life, but rigor is not a strong suit for Maria (see previous reference to dancing and hearing things and scientific misconceptions). The nuns react as I suppose is common for nuns: They break into song. “How do you solve a problem like Maria? How do you catch a cloud and pin it down?” Maria loves God and wants to be a good nun, but she is so deeply alive, joyous, and firmly connected to the spiritual core of life that her heart flies at a level above all the minutiae of rigidly prescribed daily rules and demands. She's a wind blowing that you hear but don't know where it came from or where it's going.
To be sure: There is – there can be, anyway – a beauty in rigidly prescribed daily spiritual life when, in it, the practitioner's heart and sensibilities find (or sincerely seek) a deeply alive, joyous, firm connection to the spiritual core of life. Probably though, most of us would get tangled up in trying to follow all the convent rules and not, in the end, find this beauty and joy.
Paul's problem, as I see it, is that we're all bumbling around at trying to be nuns, Paul's trying to say how God invites us to be Marias, and Paul can't [cue nuns singing] “find a word that means Maria.” He's trying to pin down a cloud – our hearts – and see them filled by the law of the spirit of life in Jesus.
But with only doctrinal principles and propositions, how can Paul move the visions of our hearts? How can he help our hearts see deeply into and through the beauty of God's Law and grace? How to see so deeply that life and peace flow from us like mountain hills alive with music? How can Paul bring us to see and hear and embody the invisible and inaudible spiritual winds that pervade life with the Master?
Principles and propositions can't do that, because that's not how principles and propositions work.
But principles and propositions can lay a fertile foundation where deep and rich spiritual life grows grounded in truth rather than in airy and wishful thinking. They can lay out the landscape of the mountain, describe how sound waves reverberate, warn us about snakes under rocks, and tell us where to find the trailhead that leads to the meadow. But here's the thing: we can fervently believe all that, and we can study harder, and ask more questions, and refine our understanding, and teach people about sound waves, and identify frequencies that make harmonies, and miss that all this is only the foundation for Creator's great gift, it's not the spirit of life itself. It's not the song of the hills.
And yet, for us, words can feel solid and comforting. Propositions can seem so clear and clean, while the inaudible spiritual winds that the propositions point to seem vague and messy. We prefer to stay confidently in the comfort zone. Keep it simple. Boil it down to where we can't get it wrong.
And so, as Paul journeys through the doctrinal landscape, maybe he worries about our tendency to fixate on the words and principles and propositions. He might fear that our ears would hear only his description of how the gift works and not hear the winds of the spiritual glory of the gift itself. We might stop with the foundation, resisting or fearing to release ourselves into the spirit wind blowing from the foundation. Thus, Paul might keep clarifying and elaborating and backtracking and qualifying and giving counterexamples hoping that, maybe at some point, we'd catch on that his words are but a lens to point us to the spirit of life in Jesus. He keeps bringing us back to the harmonies and reverberations that characterize the song of the hills:
“[Gentiles] show the work of the law written in their hearts” (Rom 2:15, ref Jer 31:33)
“He is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is that which is of the heart, by the spirit, not by the letter” (Rom 2:29)
“Apart from the Law the righteousness of God has been manifested” (Rom 3:21)
“You became obedient from the heart ... you became slaves of righteousness” (Rom 6:17-18)
“We serve in newness of the spirit and not in oldness of the letter” (Rom 7:6)
“[Your] spirit is alive because of righteousness” (Rom 8:10)
“Do not walk according to the flesh but according to the spirit” (Rom 8:4)
“The mind set on the spirit is life and peace” (Rom 8:6)
“You have received a spirit of adoption as sons by which we cry out, 'Abba! Father!'” (Rom 8:15)
When you read Romans, take in the principles and propositions. Also, focus on Paul's digressions and elaborations, listening for spiritual clues – pointers beyond the text to the nature of living in spiritual life with Jesus – which I see as the salvation beyond salvation. Remember what Jesus said: “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; it is these that testify about Me” – and the Father, and the Spirit, blowing where you don't know.
And then, go dance and sing in a mountain meadow until you are overwhelmed by the sound of the hills singing with you.