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Ernst Kasemann’s Commentary on Romans (Eerdmans, 4th ed. 1980) is widely regarded as one of the most important commentaries on the New Testament to have been written in the 20th century. Kasemann is very much a theologian and he weaves into the substance of the commentary an inspiring and nuanced theological vision. The purpose of this essay is to present some of the main themes of this vision, with a little spinning out of some of his insights.
The commentary is not an easy read. In part this may be due to difficulties of translation from the German. But it is also clear that Kasemann typically writes with a very involved style. Also he is often involved in debates that are no doubt familiar to readers of German biblical scholarship but which can be puzzling to the English reader.
It is worth persevering. Theological endeavour is always going to be hard work, and as Kasemann writes in the Preface there is a need for “unceasing labour” when doing theology.
Unless otherwise marked all quotations are from the Commentary. I have also made some use of Essays on New Testament Themes (SCM Press, 1960), and the final section is based on a chapter from Perspectives on Paul (SCM Press, 1971).
Kaesemann’s theological vision is interconnected. One thing leads onto another. The following is a partial summary:
The gospel is the proclamation and manifestation of a new creation. By the epiphany of Christ’s lordship in our lives we are brought to the new life of God. The gospel is not just a new ethical demand or a new source of inspiration. It is the reality of the eschatological kingdom and our incorporation into that kingdom. We are made new.
1. The Final Miracle
The word ‘eschatological’ traditionally refers to the things expected to occur at the end-time, the time when at last the final purposes of God are fulfilled. In the gospel this ultimate expectation is believed already to be upon us, and even now there is manifest the final miracle of God’s salvation. “The gospel is not one miracle among others. It is the epiphany of God’s eschatological power pure and simple” 22.
There is a tendency in christian thinking to assume that present day life falls between the various ‘powerful’ acts of God, which have either happened in the past (creation, Jesus’s resurrection) or are expected to happen in the future (resurrection). The present is reduced to being, in effect, an unexciting interim period: for the moment we are ‘justified’ (seen as a sort of legal decision), and we wait for the Final Judgement in which this decision will be acted upon. Kasemann’s vision completely undermines this tendency, which he would describe as “weak theology, or no theology at all”.
The full manifestation of God’s power is not limited to past and future. It is also present. The gospel is God’s decisive act not only as past in Jesus but as present in our lives and in the world. And as being God’s act it is not some lesser power in comparison with creation and resurrection: “creation, resurrection, and justification declare in fact one and the same divine action” 123. One and the same divine action - we really are in the middle of God’s wonder - but not one and the same event.
The divine epiphany is now present in a particular form, namely the lordship of Christ. This challenges us to think carefully about how we conceive of God and divine power. It is not good enough simply to suppose that in the indeterminate future God will be manifest in a way more typical of our common notions of ‘power’ and wonder. The challenge is to see this power and wonder in the present. Otherwise we may be implying that God is absent.
The Gospel is a new creation that is every bit as ‘real’ as the first creation. “God wills and creates a new world” 183. It is easy to allow such statements to divert our attention from daily life into vague and abstract notions of cosmic renewal, thinking perhaps of some as yet unseen ‘spiritual’ sphere. Kasemann undermines such false spiritualising by relating what he says very concretely to our actual here and now human lives. The fundamental perspective from which we are to understand this new creation is precisely in the sphere of our daily lives.
2. A New Lord, A New Existence
According to Kasemann Paul’s view of humanity is that “no one is ever really without a master or on his own” 43 “He is what he is because of his lord and the power of his lord, and he shows this in his acts” 219. A change of lordship is a change of existence. The gospel proclaims a change of lordship, from the lordship of the world to that of Christ. This is a new power in our lives. Kasemann has a carefully nuanced understanding of power.
"God’s righteousness is understood as power. It is not this abstractly in the sense of an objective entity, or a divine attribute in which human beings come to participate in an enigmatic event. In Paul power is always the epiphany of a will which prevails within the framework of an existing relation. In the eschatological gift of justification the Giver comes on the scene as Lord and Creator." 281
This is an important statement. It removes the idea of power from the realm of abstract forces. Instead the context is personal. A prevailing will is experienced as power, a power experienced at the vital centre of personality.
This is an irreducible element of the gospel experience. Its corollary is brought out in the last part of the quotation: the gift is the coming of the Giver himself. In no other way can there be an epiphany of will unless the other is ‘there’. In the gospel we are not receiving an abstract benefit. It is the living touch of God. “The righteousness of God ... is the eschatological manifestation of its Giver, so that, like sin, it has the character of a power that determines existence” 163. Kasemann more than once remarks that christian understanding has often separated the Giver from the gift. Where this happens the gift becomes a set of abstract ‘saving facts’ that we plug into.
Above all it is Christ who is this gift. “The apostle’s christology treats nothing other than Christ as in the full sense God’s gift for us” 28. Because he is gift he is also power over our lives: “the gift is inseparable from the gracious power which bestows it” Essays 65.
This gift of the living touch of Christ is the beginning. There is no other starting point. And if God has gifted himself to us in Christ we are already accepted, ‘justified’, brought into the place of holiness (the only place of holiness). The true and only starting point is the epiphany of the risen Lord to us as persons, not some system of precepts however ‘inward’ and pure. The point of acceptance is never a response to piety, but the miracle of God’s freely given touch on our lives.
With this new lord in our lives we are made new. “With the gospel one has to accept oneself as completely new and as changed by Christ” 123. Because the resurrection power has already broken out of the future into the present we “participate for the time being in the freedom from the powers which he has won” 157 - that is, freedom from all that prevents us truly living unto God.
Whilst the new age has come the old still remains, and the presence of the old age means that our life is set in the context of trial and conflict. So whilst we have been brought to a new existence (a new lordship) and are freed from the power of sin, we are still involved in a struggle to manifest this new life. Under Christ’s lordship we can do this.
"Christian existence ... belongs to the sphere of power of the risen lord, but it does so on earth and therefore it is always under assault, and is constantly summoned to preserve and verify eschatological freedom in the service of its true and only Lord." 176
It is worth noting, as a matter of exegesis, that Kasemann’s emphasis here corresponds to something that is very clearly found in Paul (though curiously easy to overlook). Whilst the full resurrection-consummation vision is still a horizon (e.g. Phil. 3.12-14) Paul never presents the new life of the kingdom as an unattainable ideal. On the contrary the gospel is precisely the power in our lives that enables us to live the new life freed from the power of sin. This new life is not simply a new ethical standard. It is the very life of God’s kingdom: “Christian ethics is lived out eschatology” 185. As such this new life may well be incommensurable with the standards that a ‘natural’ human ethic looks to.
3. A Path to Perfection ?
We should note a very perceptive corollary that Kasemann insists upon: the vision is not of the individual christian struggling along some long gradual path to perfection, which is a vision where “the spiritual growth of the believer replaces the question how one remains under the rule of Christ” 172.
This relates to the oft made distinction in which justification is treated as an initial ‘forensic’ decision on our behalf, whilst sanctification is the path to perfection that follows. For Kasemann this cannot be correct. Sanctification is not the goal but what we are called to be.
"Sanctification means a being for God manifesting itself bodily in the secular world and in face of temptation, because in Christ God graciously sets us in his lordship and is there for us." 183
"Sanctification here is justification maintained in the field of action and suffering." 174
Kasemann’s central notion that the saving gift is not to be distinguished from the Giver comes into play here. “The distinction between justification and sanctification and the sequence derived from it were possible only when the gift was separated from the Giver” 172. The point is that if we are talking about the Giver we are talking about the living reality of God, manifest in our lives as saving ‘power’. God’s epiphany cannot be just some partial ‘decision’ for us. It must be life-changing. The saving action in which Christ becomes our lord is both a declaration that we are accepted and a new power in our lives that brings us to the new aeon. With the alternative scheme of initial decision, followed by gradual path to perfection, we no longer have the miracle of God at all.
Kasemann’s insight brings both new demand and new inspiration. Obviously the life of the kingdom is a demand, but it is a very different type of demand from that which goes along with the notion of a gradual perfecting of the believer. In this ‘perfecting’ model we envisage ourselves on a long toiling road, gradually getting there - or more likely gradually and repeatedly not getting there as we experience continual failure. Trying to climb a slippery mud slope, there is little of inspiration and much of self-concerned tiresome dejection.
In the alternative vision the life of the kingdom is not something that we gradually toil towards but is a gift that is held out to us. We might succumb to the trial, but the deeper truth of our existence is that we have in fact been delivered from the alien power and now stand in the freedom of Christ’s lordship. We need not cry in despair but can choose to live the kingdom. This both heightens the demand (because the life of the kingdom is no longer a long term future goal) and the inspiration (because we are freed from a model of hopeless perfecting).
Also because we are not thinking in terms of a future perfection, God’s gift can be seen as given to us for who we are now. Who we are ‘now’ is the only person we shall ever be. God doesn’t wait around for us to conform to someone else’s theory of spiritual perfection. The notion of spiritual development is an abstraction. Who we are is the reality.
This sanctified life isn’t about some vague and hidden spiritual sphere. It is about the very reality of our concrete lives in the world. “One cannot belong to the Lord without manifesting his lordship with one’s own existence” 224. Or as he writes with provocative brilliance, “In each individual God is concretely reaching for the world” 141. And again:
"Pneuma is for Paul the very antithesis of spirituality and inwardness - it is the power of the Resurrection because it is the power of the Risen One. Therefore the truly spiritual service of God consists self-evidently, according to Rom. 12.1ff, in the offering of our bodies." Essays 68.
Spirit and gift is not about removal from this world to enjoy heavenly things. On the contrary it means the gift of service in the way of the lord.
4. Spirit and Service
Often there is a tendency to treat ‘spirit’ as a separate and somewhat arbitrary divine power. Kasemann argues that, for Paul, the Spirit is the manifestation not of arbitrary divine power but precisely of the risen Lord and his claim upon us. The Spirit’s presence just is Christ’s presence to us and claim upon us. “In the Spirit the risen Lord manifests his presence and lordship on earth” 213. It is Christ who seizes us by the Spirit (not just some divine energy). “Standing in the Spirit sets us under the lordship of Christ. ... It would be a gross misunderstanding for pneumatics to regard themselves as happy owners. They do not possess the heavenly; Christ possess them.” 224
Just as we all receive the Spirit so we all receive grace, and this means we are graced to serve. “As a power grace does not establish human qualities but service” 14. “There is no divine gift which does not bring with it a task, there is no grace which does not move to action. Service is not merely the consequence but the outward form and realisation of grace” Essays 65.
Kasemann has in mind here the tendency of ‘enthusiasts’ to see the gifts as given for self-exaltation and enjoyment. Against this he asserts that service, and only service, is the true criterion for any gift: “No spiritual endowment has value, rights, or privileges on its own account. It is validated only by the service it renders” Essays 67. Kasemann draws this into his understanding of ‘power’. The enthusiasts think of divine power as an energy to be revelled in. The true understanding of power is to see it as manifested in our lives as a challenge to responsibility: “the apostle knows of no gift which does not also challenge us to responsibility, thereby showing itself as a power over us and creating a place of service for us” 28. Divine power is manifested in the field of service. The impulse to serve is the impress of power on our lives.
Conversely any ‘gift’ - whether thought of as ‘charismatic’ or not by the enthusiasts - becomes a charisma when it is used under the lordship of Christ for the service of others. Nothing is charisma in itself, and nothing is secular in itself. “All things, which we do not ourselves defile, are God’s gift. All things stand within the charismatic possibility and are holy to the extent to which the holy ones of God make use of them” Essays 72.
5. Faith in Facts or Faith in the Lord ?
At heart Kasemann’s vision is of an existential change brought about by the living power of the risen Lord. This “power that determines life and destiny” is not some abstract ‘event’ that influences us or connects with us in some way. It is the power of personal will, the epiphany of the very Lord himself. Hence Kasemann’s assertion that the saving ‘gift’ is no other than the saving Giver.
"In Romans chapters 6 & 8 Paul describes participation in the reign of Christ as the gift of the eschatological act of salvation. This means, however, that in reality the gift is the Giver himself, just as the pneuma means nothing other than the earthly manifestation of the exalted lord in his community. If salvation is made autonomous over against him who brings it, one comes into dangerous proximity to the enthusiasts of Corinth." 174f
The gospel, in other words, is not a series of heavenly benefits, in which Christ’s role is merely to convey those benefits to us. Rather the gift is the Lord himself, irreducibly. It is this that brings us to new life.
The alternative sees faith as “the acceptance of a system of truths or facts of salvation. ... The Lord whom we experience has on this view nothing to offer us that we could not say to ourselves or experience in some other way. If we make him an object as the mediator of the faith or truths of salvation, he then becomes an entity that we can control or at least count on in the church - an entity which can be represented by a system” 108. Instead we should see that “faith is constituted by the fact that with the preaching of the gospel the Lord who is the basis of the gospel comes upon the scene and seizes dominion over us” ib. Kasemann continues with a typically acute insight:
"The saving events recounted in the gospel qualify him [Jesus] so that he cannot be confused with others or remain unrecognised. Hence the cross and the resurrection are at the centre."
It is he who was crucified, he who was raised, and he himself who comes as Lord over us. It is through this person (who is marked by these events) and his living lordship that cross and resurrection have meaning. It is not these events, seen in an artificial abstract way, which ‘save’ us. Rather they are central perspectives constitutive of the character of the saving lordship that claims us. We are not plugging into saving forces generated by events. We are saved by the touch of the risen one who is also the one who shows us his hands and sides and says ‘Follow me’.
The distinction in perspectives is profound and marks the difference between gospel and religion. In gospel we have to do with the free and untamed person of the risen Lord. He touches and transforms us but can never fit into a religious system. In religion we have a series of saving benefits generated above all by the ‘cross’. These benefits are claimed and regulated by the church, which tells us how to access them. This religion is a way of dealing with what people perceive their problems to be. Gospel is a heaven rending epiphany in which we are brought to nothing, and raised to life, by the divinely free lordship of Christ. Religion is about security in a system. “Humans always crave security. ... The Lord who is known as Judge, however, does not ensure security; he destroys it” 55.
6. Theology of the Cross
Kasemann asserts, following the Reformers, that Paul’s theology must be understood as a theology of the cross. He discusses this in an essay “The Saving Significance of the Death of Jesus in Paul”, printed in Perspectives. All the quotations in what follows come from this essay.
Two introductory points. Following the emphasis in Paul, Kasemann speaks of the ‘cross’ in highly interpreted terms. In Paul “the theological interpretation drives out all historical information beyond the mere event of the crucifixion” 49. The gap between event and interpretation can sometimes grow rather wide, and it is worth being aware that we are at no point dealing with a historical or scientific investigation of the actual event of Jesus’s crucifixion.
Second Kasemann notes that Paul’s dominant emphasis is on relating the ‘cross’ to us, to our life, rather than relating it to God in some theory of sacrifice or atonement. “The cross’s consequences for people dominate all Paul’s statements to such an extent that the consequences for God simply do not enter his field of vision” 43. This points us to the heart of the meaning of the ‘theology of the cross’, namely the reality of our own discipleship as followers of Jesus who have taken up the cross and followed him.
Before looking at discipleship we can note a different perspective that Kasemann draws out from the cross. This is the cross as indicating that our new life in the gospel is a shattering miracle ex nihilo, not a gradual transformation but a radical death to the old. In particular this perspective undermines any sense that we save ourselves: “the cross is the disclosure and destruction of the illusion that man can transcend himself” 41.
An interesting feature about this is that whilst the insight about the utter graciousness and miracle of salvation resonates with much of christian understanding, it is not an insight that has always been, or needs to be, attached to the ‘cross’. This suggests that the cross may be more arbitrary in its nature as a symbol than is often allowed. One of the problems with a phrase such as ‘the theology of the cross’ is that it suggests we are undertaking a scientific study of the cross’s attributes and functions. In practice we abstract far from the historical wood of the instrument of torture, and instead speak symbolically of the cross in various ways. This can happen because the historical event of the crucifixion can be seen as the particular and decisive manifestation of Jesus’s obedience to the Father as he lived out the kingdom. The term ‘the cross’ can become a shorthand for this committed discipleship.
The central application of this symbol is thus to our lives of discipleship. To be a disciple is to follow Jesus, to take up our cross and live out the glory of the kingdom. For Paul “Jesus’s glory consists in the fact that he makes his earthly disciples willing and able to take up the cross after him” 59. It is not superfluous to note that this does not mean we take up any particular cross or even any cross at all. It means that we are to live out the life of the kingdom and to recognise that this will bring us into possibly lethal conflict with ourselves and the world. It does not mean that we attempt, by liturgical means or whatever, to pick up a cross in order to see what it feels like.
In opposition to the theology of the cross Kasemann speaks of a “theology of the resurrection”. This stands for an approach in which the cross represents only the initial hurdle through which Jesus had to pass, but which is now irrelevant to us except as a historical event. Kasemann speaks of “the danger that the cross could appear as a mere transit point on the way to exaltation, and as a station which the exalted Christ left behind and which had therefore merely historical relevance” 55. On this model discipleship can overlook the cross and can enjoy instead the heavenly benefits. Kasemann sees this trend as already present at Corinth, in the Acts of the Apostles, and as widespread in the contemporary church.
As already discussed, Kasemann counters this view of heavenly power (in which the ‘power’ is a force that takes us out of trials) with a view where the divine power is precisely that which leads us to a life of service in which we encounter the trial. Commenting upon 2 Cor 13.4 he writes “Jesus shows himself to be a heavenly power of such a kind that his temptation is taken up by us on earth” 38.
Kasemann notes that in practice the theme of the cross has been relegated to the spheres of piety and dogma. Pietistic use of the cross is, of course, very widespread. The ‘scandal’ of the cross becomes a matter of not doing the right devotional things at the right liturgical times. It is felt that we are not taking the cross seriously enough if we do not flagellate ourselves in some form or other. Kasemann remarks that in this type of pietistic elevation of the cross we are turned “into observers of a sacred pageant” 35. We might add that in some contemporary liturgical circles there is a move to make us actors, and not merely observers, in this pageant. In such ways we lose sight of the reality of discipleship.
Just as we can hide the cross behind piety so we can hide it behind the formulations of dogmatic beliefs. The kosher Christian is the one who has the correct theory about cross and atonement. The ‘theology of the cross’ no longer refers to discipleship but becomes a shibboleth for membership in the circle of true believers. Kasemann summons up this situation with typical incisiveness:
"The decisive criterion of the church and of discipleship cannot possibly be the convictions we hold, especially since convictions change, even among Christians; we are never finished - we all have to go on growing. The decisive criterion for unity and division in our faith can only be how far we serve and follow Jesus as Lord and how far we deny his lordship, whether our denial takes the form of piety or impiety." 54
It is our ongoing discipleship that is the real realm for a ‘theology of the cross’. Everything else is an evasive abstraction. It is striking that more passion seems to be expended in these evasions of piety and dogma than in the cost of discipleship.
Dogmatic evaluations lead quickly onto a view of faith as the acceptance of a series of ‘facts of redemption’. But this is a travisty of faith. Faith means, and can only mean, faith in the one who was crucified and who is risen. We are led in the way of discipleship not by acceptance of a dogma but by responding to the call ‘Follow me’.
"For Paul, faith means faith in one thing and one thing alone: Christ as Lord. All his paraphrases ... simply serve the purpose of substantiating and developing the lordship of Christ. Nothing earthly must take the place of this, and it can be resolved neither into a series of historical events nor into an institution for the transmission of salvation, nor into a specific piety. Christ as Lord will not be turned into an object." 52f
This brings us back to the heart of Kasemann’s vision, the lordship of the Risen One. But perhaps from this perspective we may want to doubt the usefulness of either the label ‘theology of the cross’ or ‘theology of resurrection’. Both labels are abstractions away from what would be much more accurately called a ‘theology of the Risen Lord’. This is certainly a better description of Kasemann’s own work. His use of these two labels arises from historical considerations that are probably more relevant to German speaking scholarship than English.
By encouraging abstraction away from the living Lord, the label ‘theology of the cross’ perhaps has precisely the effect that Kasemann is so concerned to oppose - namely that of focussing attention either on dogma or on piety. The ‘cross’ has become in practice a way of denying Christ.
"Harsh though it may sound, it is obvious that Christ is denied today by Christians most of all, because his lordship over their organised religion and their dogmatic convictions has become illusory, theoretical, and imaginary." 54
To end with a quotation that would be of considerable relevance to ecumenical discussion.
"We must learn again to spell out the question: who is Jesus? Everything else is a distraction. We must measure ourselves against Jesus, not measure him against our churches and dogmas and devout church members. Christianity is drowning ... in religious riches that are really a chaos. This does not mean that churches, dogmas or even the devout are irrelevant. But it is essential that they should not be defended for their own sakes, in order to preserve the status quo of any given tradition. Their value depends entirely on the extent to which they point away from themselves and call us to follow Jesus as Lord." 53
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