Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Faith, Works, and Baggage

Please pardon any incoherence in what follows - it's late, and I'm getting sleepy, but I wanted to get this down while it's fresh, and figured that cyberspace was as good a way to do it as any. I welcome any and all comments.

I was just reading Romans 1, and read for the gazillionth time a certain little verse that gets quoted so often, verse 17: "For the righteousness of God is revealed in it [the gospel, cf. v.16] from faith into faith, just as it is written, 'The righteous one shall live by faith.'"

Now, if I recall correctly, this verse was the center point of Luther's epiphany (note: I haven't actually read Luther on this point, and I probably should), and has often been cited in discussions of faith and works in the writings of Paul. The common interpretation is, or seems to me to be, that the one who seeks to be righteous attains life by means of faith, rather than by means of works.

It strikes me now, reading it for the gazillionth time, that that's not what's going on. What Paul (and Habakkuk, from whom the verse is quoted - Habakkuk 2:4) seems to be saying is that the righteous person lives in a manner consistent with faith. That is, the righteous person lives faithfully. The righteous person will conduct his or her life in a certain way because of his or her faith in God.

Luther's interpretation, though, well suits the context in which he was reading. The faith-works contrast that much of Protestantism has seen in the writings of Paul and in the gospels is reflective of their experience of medieval Roman Catholicism. How reflective it actually is of Paul's thought, or of Jesus', is up for debate. In this case, though, I think that understanding "the righteous shall live by faith" to mean that we achieve life through faith and not works is not what Paul (or, again, Habakkuk) had in mind.

1 comment:

paul maurice martin said...

Ooh... I like it. I'll take your interpretation over ML's.

And I've had the same thought as you on Luther: that given his context, his experience and insight were highly authentic and meaningful.