Monday, October 31, 2011

In his Theology of the Cross, Luther follows Paul in rebuking Roman boastfulness

I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. (Romans 12:1)

For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. (Romans 1:18)

Robert Jewett, in his Commentary on Romans (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, ©2007) writes about Roman hubris as it resulted in a pyramid of honor:
J. E. Lendon has shown that a relatively small number of officials ruled the vast [first-century Roman] empire, using a combination of force, propaganda, and patronage that was held together by “the workings of honour and pride,” which provided “the underpinnings of loyalty and gratitude for benefactions” that made the empire functional. Although the threat of force and the desire for gain were always present, “the duty to ‘honour’ or respect officials, whether local, imperial, or the emperor himself is vastly more prominent in ancient writings than the duty to obey…. The subject paid ‘honour’ to his rulers as individuals deserving of it in themselves, and, in turn, the rulers are seen to relate to their subjects by ‘honouring’ them. Subject and official were linked by a great network of honouring, and obedience was an aspect of that honouring … As Cicero revealed, there was nothing specifically governmental in honouring people; it was an everyday social function.”

This background is essential for understanding the argument of Romans, which employs honor categories from beginning to end. Lendon observes: “Honour was a filter through which the whole world was viewed, a deep structure of the Graeco-Roman mind… Every thing, every person, could be valued in terms of honour.” At the peak of this pyramid of honor stood the emperor, who claimed to renounce honors while gathering them all to himself. Beneath him the intense competition for superiority in honor continued unabated on all levels of society.
This is the true, historical source for the Roman Catholic hierarchy. Note how it is outlined in the Catechism of the Catholic Church:

Why the ecclesial ministry?

874 Christ is himself the source of ministry in the Church. He instituted the Church. He gave her authority and mission, orientation and goal: In order to shepherd the People of God and to increase its numbers without cease, Christ the Lord set up in his Church a variety of offices which aim at the good of the whole body. The holders of office, who are invested with a sacred power, are, in fact, dedicated to promoting the interests of their brethren, so that all who belong to the People of God . . . may attain to salvation.

875 “How are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without a preacher? And how can men preach unless they are sent?” No one - no individual and no community - can proclaim the Gospel to himself: “Faith comes from what is heard.” No one can give himself the mandate and the mission to proclaim the Gospel. The one sent by the Lord does not speak and act on his own authority, but by virtue of Christ’s authority; not as a member of the community, but speaking to it in the name of Christ. No one can bestow grace on himself; it must be given and offered. This fact presupposes ministers of grace, authorized and empowered by Christ. From him, bishops and priests receive the mission and faculty (“the sacred power”) to act in persona Christi Capitis; deacons receive the strength to serve the people of God in the diaconia of liturgy, word and charity, in communion with the bishop and his presbyterate. The ministry in which Christ’s emissaries do and give by God’s grace what they cannot do and give by their own powers, is called a “sacrament” by the Church’s tradition. Indeed, the ministry of the Church is conferred by a special sacrament.

876 Intrinsically linked to the sacramental nature of ecclesial ministry is its character as service. Entirely dependent on Christ who gives mission and authority, ministers are truly “slaves of Christ,” in the image of him who freely took “the form of a slave” for us. Because the word and grace of which they are ministers are not their own, but are given to them by Christ for the sake of others, they must freely become the slaves of all.

877 Likewise, it belongs to the sacramental nature of ecclesial ministry that it have a collegial character. In fact, from the beginning of his ministry, the Lord Jesus instituted the Twelve as “the seeds of the new Israel and the beginning of the sacred hierarchy.” Chosen together, they were also sent out together, and their fraternal unity would be at the service of the fraternal communion of all the faithful: they would reflect and witness to the communion of the divine persons. For this reason every bishop exercises his ministry from within the episcopal college, in communion with the bishop of Rome, the successor of St. Peter and head of the college. So also priests exercise their ministry from within the presbyterium of the diocese, under the direction of their bishop.
On “Boasting”
Jewett relates that “the competitive center of the ancient systems of shame and honor was what Paul called ‘boasting.’ This was a much more blatant, socially acceptable form of behavior than is conceivable for most moderns, formed by often disingenuous traditions of public modesty. Not so for shapers of the Greco-Roman world. As E.A. Judge observed, ‘Self-magnification thus became a feature of Hellenic higher eduation.’ By eliminating the culturally endorsed motivation of seeking honor through teaching and learning, [“Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord”], Paul in effect radically alters the Greco Roman theory of education.”

Jewett continues, relating how the Roman (city) hierarchy, or “pyramid of honor” functioned within itself: “The competition for honor was visible in every city of the Roman Empire in which members of the elite competed for civic power through sponsoring games and celebrations, financing public buildings, endowing food distributions, and so on. The public life in the Roman Empire was centered in the quest for honor. There were inscriptions on every public building and artwork indicating to whose honor it should be attributed. Rome in particular was full of majestic public buildings such as temples, baths, fountains, and amphitheaters built to honor glorious leaders and triumphal occasions. These ideas formed the center of the Pax Romana established by Augustus, whom Philo celebrated as
first and greatest benefactor to whom the whole habitable world voted no less than celestial honors. These are so well attested by temples, gateways, vestibules, porticoes…. He received his honors … with the magnitude of so mighty a sovereignty whose prestige was bound to be enhanced by such tributes. That he was never elevated or puffed up by the vast honors given to him is clearly shown by the fact that he never wished anyone to address him as god.”
And the “vicar of Christ” on earth, the “successor of Peter”, too, has the magnificent humility never to have wished anyone on earth to address him as god. There are further similarities. Continuing with Jewett on Rome and Caesar Augustus:
The propagandistic Res Gestae [Augustus’s “autobiography”] that Augustus published and inscribed Roman temples throughout the empire celebrates his glorious accomplishments in bringing peace to the Mediterranean world and consolidating his rule under the fiction of democracy. Here one can see the elaborate gradations of honors he boasts of having received:
In my sixth and seventh consulships, when I had extinguished the flames of civil war, after receiving by universal consent the absolute control of affairs, I transferred the republic from my own control to the will of the senate and of the Roman people. For this service on my part I was given the title of Augustus by decree of the senate, and the doorposts of my house were covered with laurels by public act, and a civic crown was fixed above my door, and a Golden shield was placed in the Curia Julia whose inscription testified that the senate and the Roman people gave me this in recognition of my valour, my clemency, my justice, and my piety. After that time I took precedence of all in rank, but of power I possessed no more than those who were my colleagues in any magistracy.”
And the pope, too, is of course, and has always been, the “first among equals” in power, etc., as the Catechism of the Catholic Church has affirmed:
The episcopal college and its head, the Pope:

880 When Christ instituted the Twelve, “he constituted [them] in the form of a college or permanent assembly, at the head of which he placed Peter, chosen from among them.” Just as “by the Lord’s institution, St. Peter and the rest of the apostles constitute a single apostolic college, so in like fashion the Roman Pontiff, Peter’s successor, and the bishops, the successors of the apostles, are related with and united to one another.”

881 The Lord made Simon alone, whom he named Peter, the “rock” of his Church. He gave him the keys of his Church and instituted him shepherd of the whole flock. “The office of binding and loosing which was given to Peter was also assigned to the college of apostles united to its head.” This pastoral office of Peter and the other apostles belongs to the Church’s very foundation and is continued by the bishops under the primacy of the Pope.

882 The Pope, Bishop of Rome and Peter’s successor, “is the perpetual and visible source and foundation of the unity both of the bishops and of the whole company of the faithful.” “For the Roman Pontiff, by reason of his office as Vicar of Christ, and as pastor of the entire Church has full, supreme, and universal power over the whole Church, a power which he can always exercise unhindered.”

883 “The college or body of bishops has no authority unless united with the Roman Pontiff, Peter’s successor, as its head.” As such, this college has “supreme and full authority over the universal Church; but this power cannot be exercised without the agreement of the Roman Pontiff.”
Continuing with Jewett’s account of Augustus:
The claims of having restored power to the Senate and the Roman people, and of having only collegial power of the magistracy were, of course, fictions. His position at the peak of the pyramid of honor rendered it logical that total power should be placed in his hands. His achievements are celebrated in the Res Gestae with language that is significant for the argument of [Paul’s letter to the] Romans: clementia = “mercies” in Romans 12:1; justitia = “rightwising, righteousness, etc.”; pietas = “piety” that Paul finds lacking in Romans 1:18 [at the top of this post].

In every victory parade and civic celebration in temple or coliseum, the Romans claimed superior honors for themselves and their rulers; they were firmly convinced that the gods had “exalted this great empire of Rome to the highest point yet reached on earth” because of its superior virtue. In Cicero’s memorable formulation, the Romans boasted of being religion … multo superiores (“with respect to religious observance far superior”) in comparison with the other nations they had incorporated into their empire. The argument about overturning this corrupt and exploitative honor system is found throughout Paul’s letter to the Romans (Jewett, pgs 49-51).

Over the centuries, Rome has characterized itself as “the eternal city”. In his work “Called to Communion”, defending the notion that “the universal church” was always and forever to have its center in Rome, Joseph Ratzinger (now “Pope Benedict XVI”) wrote:
But the whole book of Acts is arranged, not according to purely historiographical concerns, but on the basis of a theological idea. It portrays the path of the Gospel from the Jews to the Gentiles and thus depicts the fulfillment of the commission with which Jesus left his disciples. To be his witnesses “to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8). However, in the general plan of the book, the path of the witnesses—in particular of Saint Paul—from Jerusalem to Rome becomes in turn a graphic synthesis of this theological way. In Luke’s presentation, Rome is the recapitulation of the pagan world as such.
Citing his own work, Behold the Pierced One, Ratzinger then fixes Rome as “the goal” of “catholicity”: “Paul’s arrival in Rome marks the goal of the path that began in Jerusalem; the universal—the catholic—Church has been realized, in continuance of the ancient chosen people and its history and taking over the latter’s mission. Thus Rome, as a symbol for the world of the nations, has a theological status in Acts; it cannot be separated from the Lukan idea of catholicity” (Ratzinger, “Called to Communion”, pg 45).

Ratzinger here embodies the continuation of ancient Roman hubris, “boasting”, that Paul argues against so mightily (“Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord”), the environment of “boasting” in which Martin Luther “grew up”, and against which he revolted in his “Theology of the Cross”. Rome wants to claim that “Christ instituted the hierarchy”, that Christ gave Peter almost “imperial” jurisdictional powers and “infallibility”. But in truth, Roman “popes” of old merely inherited from the Caesers the disingenuous, lying nature of describing their office and power.


  1. Many Protestants have seen it no mere co-incidence that in his Epistle to ROMANS, apostle Paul rebukes the pride of Gentile Christians and their possible idea that although the unbelieving Jews fell out of grace, the same thing could not possibly happen to themselves...

  2. Hi Viisaus, you are up early :-)