13:1 Every person is to be in subjection to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those which exist are established by God.
13:2 Therefore whoever resists authority has opposed the ordinance of God; and they who have opposed will receive condemnation upon themselves. (NASB)
Naturally, McGrath mainly wished to take a few fizzling fusillades at mythicists, and that’s no surprise. What did surprise me was the number of respected scholars who actually take the scripture so seriously (if not literally), they feel obliged to tie themselves into rhetorical knots over whether and when to refuse to submit to governing authorities.
As Neil rightly said:
This human universal owes precious little to a few words written from a vaguely understood context and provenance in a civilization far removed from ours.
But even if he had written more clearly, and we fully understood the context of Romans 13, would we have any reason to consider Paul a trustworthy advocate for ethical behavior?
The question intrigues me, so I thought I’d compile a little list of reasons we might not want to trust Paul’s advice.
♦ Imminent Eschatology
Paul was clearly a believer in the imminent eschaton. He seems to have arrived at this belief by analyzing recent events, especially the resurrection, in light of scriptural reinterpretation. We might find his method somewhat odd, since he could have cited the teachings of his Christ instead. However, Paul either chose not to mention Jesus’ predictions concerning the coming of the Son of Man and the destruction of the Temple, or else he was unaware of them.
How soon will Jesus come? He believed “we” who are living will be caught up in the air. So the Parousia, he thought, would happen within his lifetime. That belief may have fueled his desire to get the message out, which could explain why his letters were preserved, copied, passed along, and read in other churches in other cities. His written words could reach much father than his spoken words.
♦ Social Philosophy: Stay Put
Because he thought God was about to turn the entire universe upside down, Paul advised his followers to remain in their station. In 1 Corinthians 7, Paul gives a list of situations in life you might want to leave, but he says to stay put. He even says if you can, stay single.
Each man must remain in that condition in which he was called. (1 Cor. 7:20, NASB)
I take his position on “staying put” as evidence that Paul’s advice not to worry about terrestrial rulers has more to do with not making waves and focusing on important matters before the Parousia than with some deep-seated belief that people should not seek better conditions.
♦ Paul’s Ancient Mind
Paul didn’t know squat about science.
But someone will ask, “How are the dead raised? With what kind of body do they come?” You foolish person! What you sow does not come to life unless it dies. (1 Cor. 15:35-36)
Seeds don’t die. Paul was wrong about how seeds work, but he wasn’t alone. It doesn’t mean he was wrong about everything, but it’s a tap on the shoulder, a gentle reminder, if you will. “Psst. This guy lived 2,000 years ago.” You could argue that we should cut him some slack. Why, you may ask, should we expect Paul to know anything about science?
I agree with you. But then I would ask, “Why should we expect him to know anything about anything?” He was entirely wrong about the schedule of the Parousia. So why should we expect him to be correct about any feature of the eschaton? If he had known two millennia would pass, and still no Jesus — how could that not have affected his thinking?
Let me put it a different way. We understand the world today almost entirely through experimental science and mathematics. Paul understood the world through philosophy, received wisdom (scripture), and direct revelation. But it turns out that much of Paul’s understanding of the physical world and his knowledge of upcoming events was wrong. His tools — including a supposed direct conduit to his Lord — failed him.
If that’s the case, then why should we take seriously his views on justice and morality?
♦ Paul’s Morality as a Relic
Paul’s stance on ethics is a relic from a bygone era, and it should be treated that way. By their very definition, they are situational ethics. If Paul had not believed in the imminent arrival of Christ, his ethics would not have been the same. His justification for extreme chastity and staying put would vanish. In other words, if Paul hadn’t been wrong about his fundamental understanding about where he and his congregation stood, he could not have argued the way he did.
We know he was wrong about the timing of the Parousia. He was dead wrong. He is dead and he is wrong. Therefore we’re justified in asking how much of Paul’s moral and ethical advice arose from those erroneous beliefs.
But more to the point, why should people living in the modern world take Paul’s writings seriously? And I don’t mean believing that what he wrote had divine inspiration and has the status of “God’s Word.” That’s embarrassing enough. No, I mean to say, “Why should we take it seriously at all, other than to study it as a fly trapped in amber?”
♦ Are Paul’s Ethics Coherent?
Paul says Jesus was killed by the “archons” who didn’t know what they were doing. If the common understanding is correct, then why does Paul say later that earthly rulers have power only because God permits it? Is it because “worldly things just don’t matter”? Or is it because God is pulling the strings in a world that is little more than puppet theater?
I submit that Paul’s teachings on this matter and others only seem coherent because legions of theologians and apologists have ruminated over them for centuries, pounding them into submission.
How can any serious person who poses as a “historian” ruminate over the words of a man who thought he was about to be snatched up into the sky by his resurrected savior? Paul may help us understand early Christianity, but he is extremely unlikely to give us any useful information about how we should live our own lives. His intellect is nowhere near Plato’s or Aristotle’s, and we take those great thinkers with a grain of salt. We might use them to spur further discussion, but if a professor of ancient history treated the works of those philosophers as venerated, received truths we’d have to wonder if he’s got a screw loose.