Sunday, August 10, 2014

The day God lost face

Men... in their unrighteousness suppress the truth [about God]. For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him... They exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images... They worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator.... They did not see fit to retain God in their knowledge.

Hello everyone.  It's Romans time again.  This time, we cover the "honor, shame" aspect of Romans 1:18-32.  This is the passage in the Bible where God got defamed.  And we were the ones who humiliated Him. We "tarnished his reputation", so to speak.  We were the disobedient kids who squandered his family name and smeared it in the mud.

Suppressing the Truth
Verse 18 kicks off the theme.  It says that men "suppress the truth" about God.

A couple months ago, when a friend of mine gave his “two weeks notice”, the company he had labored so many years for walked him out immediately without giving him a chance to even say goodbye to his colleagues. For some reason, they didn't want to recognize his work or contributions and insodoing they discredited his years of hard work.

Or I can think of Mao, who let Peng Dehuai's name rot by perverting the facts and suppressing the truth. Peng Dehuai was a very venerable, loyal man who had every right to be highly praised. But he spoke badly about the Great Leap Forward at the Lushan conference, his defamation came speedily. Soon his true legacy was buried under an avalanche of lies. Mankind knows how to suppress truth when they want to stain a man's status.

This is what human beings have done to God.

Verse 28 says we “didn't see fit to retain God in [our] knowledge”. We “didn't see fit”. We snubbed God. We saw Him as beneath us. Not worth our attention. It's like if you've ever smiled to be nice and friendly to someone and said “hi” to them and had them just completely ignore you. It hurts. It's what we did to God. Someone has, for this reason, referred to us as “God-belittling glory thieves” and I think the statement sticks.

One of the interesting things pointed out in this passage is that idolatry is fundamentally a dishonoring of God. Notice that verses 21-23 form a chiasm:

A: (21a) Although they knew God, they did not glorify [4] Him as God or give thanks to Him
B: (21b) but they became futile in their thinking and their foolish hearts were darkened.B ': (22) Claiming to be wise, they became fools.
A': (23) and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man. [5]

The idolatry in A' is paralleled with the dishonor done to God in A. And this idolatry is seen as the fundamental error of human beings from which all our other sins flow. Our root sin was our dishonoring of God. We “exchanged the glory” of God for idols. Money, sex, and our own glory. (Or, still in many cultures, actual statues, just like Israel did.) We saw God, we saw the idol, and we said, “thanks God, but no thanks.” And we decided to “worship and serve the Creature rather than the creator”. We don't really want God as much as we want His stuff (says verse 25). Exchanged the truth about God, or, exchanged revelling in the revelation of His character, for a lie. For an illusion.

Mankind doesn't do well without God. In His place, we need good images (verse 23) and illusions (verse 25). We need a cover-up operation. We need suppression. Life without God is too hard on the human soul without something to replace Him with.

So there you go. I've explained the first point in Romans 1:18-32:  God was disgraced. He lost face. But that's definitely not all the passage has to say about it. We'll cover His response in our next post.

--------- Endnotes ---------------

[1] For a better reading on Romans from an honor shame perspective, see Jackson Wu, in that section of his magnificent book "Saving God's Face: A Chinese Contextualization of Salvation through Honor and Shame (EMS Dissertation Series)" (Amazon linkThemelios' book review link).  He also has a blog.  I haven't read the book, but have heard great things about it and I hear he does a re-read of Romans.

[2] For the word "exchange", Paul uses “allasow” (αλλάσω) in verse 23 and then uses “metallassow” (μεταλλασω) in verses 25 and 26 without any change in meaning. See Moo.

[3] There is an intentional contrast between God being immortal and the images being mortal. Clearly pointing out the foolishness of the idolaters that was mentioned in verses 21 and 22.

[4] The ESV for the word edoxasan (εδόξασαν) in verse 21a is “honor”. But I think a better translation (as does Moo) is “glorify”. The root word “doxa” (δοξα) is the word for glory. I think “honor” works as well. And does a good job at helping the reader see the parallel between this concept and the dishonoring that happens later in verses 24 and 26. But in verses 24 and 26, the words are atimazesthai (ατιμάζεσθαι) and atimias (ατιμίας) respectively, a different word group from “doxa”. So I think it makes more sense to translate it as “glorify”.

[5] For a nice treatment of how Paul is using Psalm 106 in Romans 1:23, see G.K. Beale, “A New Testament Theology”.

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