Lenten Readings: Day 22

Beyond Good and Evil?

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Otto of A Fish Called Wanda reading Beyond Good and Evil by Friedrich Nietzsche

Today is March 25, 2017, so strictly speaking the readings from the Daily Office Lectionary today are not those for the Saturday after the Third Sunday in Lent, but those for the Feast of the Annunciation (it’s only nine months to Christmas!). However, I want to maintain continuity as I read and reflect on the lectio continua of Paul’s Letter to the Romans.

In the passage below Paul is again mainly addressing Gentile Christians (and this, by the way, is a contested matter). The Gentiles, having been idolators and complicit with pagan morals and cults, were under the dominion of sin; that is, they were slaves to this power of sin. By faith in Christ they have now been transferred to the dominion of righteousness. They also know that they are Gentile Christians and not Jewish Christians, and so are not subject to the Torah with its many elaborations. They are under grace, not the law. So are they then free to do anything? Are they beyond good and evil?

Rom 6.12–23
Therefore, do not let sin exercise dominion in your mortal bodies, to make you obey their passions. No longer present your members to sin as instruments of wickedness, but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and present your members to God as instruments of righteousness. For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace.

What then? Should we sin because we are not under law but under grace? By no means! Do you not know that if you present yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness? But thanks be to God that you, having once been slaves of sin, have become obedient from the heart to the form of teaching to which you were entrusted, and that you, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness. I am speaking in human terms because of your natural limitations. For just as you once presented your members as slaves to impurity and to greater and greater iniquity, so now present your members as slaves to righteousness for sanctification.

When you were slaves of sin, you were free in regard to righteousness. So what advantage did you then get from the things of which you now are ashamed? The end of those things is death. But now that you have been freed from sin and enslaved to God, the advantage you get is sanctification. The end is eternal life. For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Paul regularly sets things in opposition. In the passage above we can see the following antimonies:

Sin Righteousness
Death Life
[Works] Grace
Slaves of Sin Slaves of Obedience

Slaves of Righteousness

Enslaved to God

Free from righteousness Free from Sin
Impurity, Iniquity Righteousness for Sanctification
Sin => Death Gift of God => Eternal Life in Christ Jesus

Paul’s point is that because of grace the Gentile Christians (and Jewish Christians, presumably) are no longer under the dominion of sin, but that does not mean that they can do anything. In First Corinthians Paul addresses much the same issues relating to the eating of food and sexual morality. There he says, “All things are lawful, but not everything builds up”. The Christian is free from sin, but is still called to righteousness in such a strong way that he or she may be considered a slave of obedience, righteousness, or God. Having received the free gift of grace, a Gentile Christian should not try to become a Jew, but to live in obedience to the Holy Spirit at work in them. A Jewish Christian, being part of the covenant people of Sinai, can express her or his faith in terms of the Torah, as is most likely to build up the faith.  In First Corinthians 9 Paul writes:

19 For though I am free with respect to all, I have made myself a slave to all, so that I might win more of them. 20To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though I myself am not under the law) so that I might win those under the law. 21To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law) so that I might win those outside the law. 22To the weak I became weak, so that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, so that I might by any means save some. 23I do it all for the sake of the gospel, so that I may share in its blessings.

Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900), the son of a Lutheran pastor and at one time studying theology, came to reject the Christian faith. In On The Genealogy of Morality (1887) he described Christianity as having a slave morality – one which “values things like kindness, humility, and sympathy”. The morality of the master, on the other hand, “values pride, strength, and nobility.” While Nietzsche felt both moralities had their issues, he thought that the slave morality was more deeply problematic. In a way pre-figuring Foucault, he believed that all moralities were social constructs, and rejected the deontology (i.e. rule based ethics) of Immanuel Kant. His own view was that humans needed to be beyond simple questions of “good” and “evil” and focus on the consequences of their actions, as part of a process which would allow them to create values that would ennoble them. Rather than identify abstract values, Nietzsche pointed to geniuses such as Goethe or Beethoven (and himself) as fully actualized persons, and that humanity ought to be like them.

Paul would reject this, of course. While in some ways his understanding of grace releases people from just following rules, for him it is the power of the Holy Spirit was that enables a person to be obedient and moral. Through the Holy Spirit  God directs the one who follows Christ. To become fully human is to become Christ-like – kind, humble, sympathetic, compassionate, and self-sacrificing.

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About Bruce Bryant-Scott

Baptised 1962. Anglican priest. Fly-paper brain. Husband & Father. Refugees welcome! I remember when Facebook was on paper.
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