The first chapter of For Zion lays the groundwork for Spencer’s reading of Paul’s theology of hope. It focuses especially on Paul’s letter to the Romans. Understanding the details of this “theology of hope” is crucial to understanding Spencer’s full account of what’s at stake in the law of consecration.
For Spencer, the context of Paul’s letter is important. He argues—as Paul himself indicates—that Romans should be read against the backdrop of Paul’s planned trip to Jerusalem. For Paul, this trip metonymically enacts that long prophesied day when the Gentile nations would finally recognize God, gather an offering, and go up to Jerusalem. Paul, traveling on their behalf, bears an offering consecrated for the aid of the destitute Jesus-believers living there.
Romans is framed by an act of consecration. As a result, Paul’s trip to Jerusalem on behalf of his Gentile converts is, in many ways, hope embodied. It’s the law of consecration enacted. It’s Zion in miniature.
This sets the stage. However, before Spencer can start on his sharp and nuanced explication of Paul’s theology of hope, he needs to devote this first chapter to a description of the problem. He needs to clarify Paul’s account of the problem that Christian hope and consecration are meant to address.
We need a breakdown of Paul’s basic “anthropology of sin.”
For Paul, to understand sin we have to understand two things. We have to see: (1) that sin is fundamentally a suppression of God’s already given grace, and (2) that sin accomplishes this suppression by hijacking and repurposing God’s gifts (i.e., sin hijacks both the created world and God’s law).
With an eye to their philosophical implications, here’s how Spencer renders some of the key passages in Romans 1:17-21.
It’s immediately within preaching, within the transfer of faith, that divine righteousness is revealed—as it’s written, “the one who’s righteous will live by faith”—while divine wrath is revealed from heaven against all human unrighteousness, against all those who suppress the truth in unrighteousness. What’s known of God is manifest among them, because God has made it manifest to them: his eternal power and divine nature—things indiscernible since the creation of the world—have been understood and discerned through the things he’s made. So they’re without excuse. Although they knew God, they didn’t glorify him as God or give thanks to him. (9-10)
Sin is this act of suppression. It’s this rejection of the world God has already given.
In particular, sin is a suppression or obfuscation of the world’s “givenness” or “createdness.” This givenness or createdness is the mark of God’s grace.
All created things arrive stamped with this gift-mark. This stamp is called “glory.”
Regardless of merit, all these created things are given as gifts and they are given to everyone. God causes the sun to rise on the good and the bad. He causes the rain to fall on the just and the unjust. God just gives.
More, the created world’s givenness (or giftedness) is a persistent sign of God’s own nearness. It’s a sign that persists even when God seems absent.
As a result, when humans reject and suppress the gift-like character of the created world, they are, by extension, rejecting and suppressing God himself. So, as Spencer says, “it is God’s very nature that human beings suppress in their unrighteousness, obscuring his grace and his nearness by regarding him only as a distant and wrathful deity” (10).
With the world’s grace (and, thus, God’s nearness) suppressed, God starts to seem very far away. Everything about him starts to seem distant, angry, wrathful, paranormal, and fundamentally supernatural. Grace seems scarce and superstition sprouts.
People start to think that if God is fundamentally otherworldly and supernatural, then religion must itself be about this same otherworldly and supernatural stuff. Religion gets turned into the business of long-distance communication.
Religion, instead of abolishing this distance, enshrines it. Religion itself gets co-opted by sin.
Thanks to our rejection of God’s already revealed (and already obvious) grace, Spencer says, “the truth is displaced into a beyond” (11).
From the perspective of sin, the
divine righteousness manifested in the nearness of the kingdom of God becomes divine wrath eventually made manifest from the meanwhile-silent heavens. Human beings in all their unrighteousness construct their world in a way that will leave no room for God, at least until He finally decides to plunge the world into apocalyptic disaster. People need God to dwell in transcendence so that he does not get in the way of their desires, “the lusts of their heart.” (11)
Sin doesn’t move God to withdraw. Sin is the hard work of pretending that God can be shoved off-world. Sin is make-believing that God and his grace belong to outer space or some distant point in the past or the future.
As sinners, we need God to seem far away. His nearness is terrifying. A little distance gives our lusts room. It lets our hunger for acquisition bloom. God’s purported “absence” gives us cover to claim as our own—that is, as property—what had been gifts.
With God out of the picture and his grace denied, sin has free reign. Now sin can put God’s world to a different use.
Rather than being an expression of shared grace meant for joint consecration, it becomes possible to trade on the world’s glory in pursuit of our own satisfactions. We can “economize God’s glory” as a proprietary commodity. We can license and trademark creation. We can speculate and stockpile. We can create demand.
Having suppressed the truth, Paul says, we sinners
have economized [metallasso] God’s glory by making of it so many static images—things resembling mortal human beings or birds or four-footed animals or reptiles. Therefore God handed them over to the impurity they fantasize about, leaving them to dishonor their bodies among themselves—those who in the lusts of their heart replaced God’s truth with the lie and worshiped and served the creation in the place of the creator. (Romans 1:23-25, FZ 10)
Glossing this passage, Spencer summarizes:
There is a perfect reciprocity between human unrighteousness (fallen humans being little more than bundles of transgressive fantasies and impure desires) and the economic order of the world (that order being little more than a market for trading idols). Every idol on offer is a polished mirror in which a transgressive human fantasy adores itself, enjoying the image of the transgression much more than the act. (13)
This reciprocity is clearly displayed in the way that sin hijacks God’s law. From the beginning God gave the law as a gift, as a grace. And from the beginning the law could only be fulfilled by way of grace. The whole law points to Jesus. The law—both in fact and in principle—cannot be fulfilled by keeping the law. Only grace can fulfill the law.
But with God’s grace suppressed by sin, the law’s own graciousness is obscured.
Commandeered by sin, the law shows up as a system of economic exchange, of quid pro quo with the divine. The law shows up as proprietary, as a way of earning certain kinds of spiritual profit and surplus capital. The law becomes a pyramid scheme for securing and storing up privilege’s both on earth and in heaven.
In short—and in one of the world’s most bitter ironies—the law gets repurposed as a way of measuring what we can manage without God, as a measure of what we can do all on our own! Religion and the law become about showing what I can do without any help from that so-distant God!
And, more darkly, Spencer points out, the law comes to play a fundamental role in propping up our fantasies. What good is a fantasy that doesn’t involve the excitement of transgression, of surpassing a limit? And what transgression is possible without a law to forbid it?
This is the deep truth about sin: sin needs God’s law. Sin hijacks and internalizes God’s law. God’s law is essential to the economy of sin, to the inflation of lust, to proving your superiority over other people, and to the dream that the next forbidden idol will finally satisfy you. Sin would be lost and impossible without the law.
Sin lusts for the law.
And so God’s glory gets economized. And so grace gets obscured. And so we feel dead to ourselves. And we feel dead to the world around us.
Cut off from life and creation.
And we’re left to ask: whatever happened to Zion?