A Response to Bart Ehrman on Paul and Salvation (Part One)

A Response to Bart Ehrman on Paul and Salvation (Part One)

Bart Ehrman has made quite a name for himself, both on the scholarly and popular level.

I have no particular disdain for his work, even when I disagree. In fact, I was impressed by his recent book on the deity of Jesus because of its subtlety and genuine scholarship (which is not to say I don’t have major problems with his thesis).

Because of my particular interest in St. Paul, the doctrine of justification, and its relationship to the Patristic teaching about theosis, I intend to offer a point-by-point response and analysis of Dr. Ehrman’s recent series:

EHRMAN: Rather than launching into a passage-by-passage exposition of Romans, it may be more useful at this point to reflect in broader terms on what Paul has to say in this letter about his central theme, the gospel.  (Remember: Paul is not speaking about a Gospel book that contains a record of Jesus’ words and deeds, but about his own gospel message.)

It is important to note that the root of Paul’s word “gospel” comes from Isa. 52:7, where it is the proclamation that God is reigning from Zion. This passage is quoted in Romans 10:15, but it is present in Rom. 1:3–4 where Christ is constituted as reigning Son of God and Davidic king in virtue of his resurrection from the dead. The “gospel” then, is not “the message of salvation.” The gospel is the proclamation of the reign of God. The power of that reign is then unto salvation (Rom. 1:17–18).

EHRMAN: In fact, Paul has a variety of things to say about it, and it is easy at places to become confused, wondering if Paul is being consistent with himself.  In most instances (I’m not sure I can vouch for all of them), Paul is not inconsistent and is not himself confused.  The difficulty is that he discusses God’s act of salvation in a number of different ways and sometimes does not clearly indicate which way he is thinking about.  Or to put the matter somewhat differently, Paul has various modes of understanding — various conceptual models — of what it means to say that God brought about salvation through Jesus’ death and resurrection

There are at least two major models that Paul uses for understanding the importance of Christ’s death in the letter to the Romans.  I will call these the judicial and the participationist models (these are not, of course, Paul’s own terms).  Paul does not see these as mutually exclusive of one another; on the contrary, he sometimes combines different conceptualities in one statement.

At this point, I very much agree with Dr. Ehrman. Paul’s participationism and juridicalism are not contradictory. I will in fact argue that Paul’s juridical language is itself participatory.

EHRMAN: For our immediate purposes, however, it will be useful to see how the models “work” in isolation from one another.  Both models understand that human beings are somehow alienated from God and that Christ’s death and resurrection somehow work to resolve that problem.  The nature of the problem and the way Christ has solved it, however, are expressed differently in the two models.

With qualifications, I disagree. Paul, in fact, is not using two complementary models, even though he expresses himself in different terms with different emphases. Paul is using one model- advance participation in the general resurrection by participation in the death of Christ. This animates the mortal body with the “glory of God,” the same glory which will animate the reason body. This, then, marks out a person for the age to come. I will argue this in detail in what follows.

EHRMAN: 1. The Judicial Model.  Paul sometimes understands the human problem with respect to God and the divine solution to the problem in “legal” or “judicial” terms.  That is to say, in his mind there is a kind of rough analogy between the act of salvation and the human judicial process.  The way it works, in simple terms, is as follows.

God is a lawmaker who has made laws for people to follow (all people, not just Jews); everyone, though, has broken these laws.

On the contrary, that for Paul, the Torah is for Israel and Israel alone. Israel was intended to find life through obedience to the Torah. That’s the sense of Deut. 27–30, where Moses says that there will be life for obedience and death for obedience: but Israel will disobey and die. The twist comes in Deut. 30:6. God will bring his people back from exile, circumcise their hearts so that they obey his commandments, and thereby discover life. This passage underpins the vision in Ezek. 37 where Israel’s restoration is constituted by resurrection, after God implants His Spirit in Israel’s newfound, fleshy heart. Israel finds life—resurrection.

That Paul understands the Torah to be for Israel and not for those outside the covenant is evident in passages like Rom. 5:13–14. Sin is not counted where there is no law, but the problem for Paul is that death reigned even outside the law. How Paul answers this problem is outside the scope of this response, but the fact that it needs responding to indicates that Paul has not simply universalized what he means by “law.”

EHRMAN: God is also the judge, before whom people appear as lawbreakers.  The penalty for breaking God’s laws is death, and everyone is found to be guilty as charged.  This is the human problem.  In Paul’s words, “everyone has sinned” (i.e., broken God’s laws, see Rom 3:23).

This is true in a sense, but false in a sense. The context of Paul’s statement in Rom. 3:23 is Rom. 2:17–3:22.

In Rom. 2:17-24, Paul tells us what Israel’s calling was. It was to be a “light to those who are in darkness.” That is, Paul is not simply saying that “Israel, too, has sinned.” Paul has said that Israel’s sin is particularly tragic, because Israel was meant to heal the nations. Instead of accomplishing that, “the name of God is blasphemed among the nations because of you” (Rom. 2:24). Paul then transitions to 2:25–29 where he says that the circumcision that counts before God is one of the heart—and Gentiles are being circumcised in their hearts! This reflects the prophecy of Deut. 30, where it is Israel’s heart that is circumcised after the return from exile. This naturally sparks the question of Rom. 3:1–8: Why did God call the Jews in the first place? His answer is that the Jews were “entrusted with the oracles of God” (Rom. 3:2). As elsewhere in Paul, “entrusted” means “given to accomplish a purpose” (1 Cor. 9:7, Gal. 2:7). Israel’s unfaithfulness is then not simply her disobedience, but her refusal to use the Torah to shine light on the world (Rom. 2:19–24). Because Israel is unfaithful, God’s faithfulness to heal the world through Israel is called into question (Rom. 3:3-5). That is otherwise known as the “righteousness of God,” his faithfulness to the promises.

After a series of enormously significant quotations from the Psalms and Isaiah (which I do not have time to exposit), Paul articulates the divine answer to the problem. Though the whole world has sinned and is accountable to God, including Israel, God’s righteousness stands- through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ for all who are faithful (Rom. 3:22). Though the translation of pistis Christou in the subjective is controversial, I stand by it for a number of reasons. First, in Rom. 4:25, the object of Abraham’s faith (prototypical of all Christians) is God, not Christ. Second, the faithfulness of Christ answers back to the problem of Rom. 3:2–5, where the righteousness of God is called into question by Israel’s unfaithfulness and God’s apparent unfaithfulness. Christ, God, and Israel summed up in one person, is the answer to both of those problems. The faithfulness of Christ is then “for all who are faithful.” That is, the faithfulness of Christians maps back onto the faithfulness of Christ. This solves the problem of Rom. 3:23, cited by Dr. Ehrman above. Rom. 3:23 says that all have sinned and “lack the glory of God.” This is not simply a throwaway phrase. The theme of divine glory starts in Rom. 1:23, travels through 2:6, to 3:23, to 5:2, to 6:3–4 until climaxing in chapter 8. Humans exchanged the glory of the immortal God for idols. At the Final Judgment, those who are declared righteous will receive gloryhonor, and immortalityThe glory of God is what gives life. That’s why in Rom. 6:3–4, the Christian shares in the resurrection when he is baptized into Christ, because Christ was raised by the glory of the Father.

This is all absolutely relevant to Paul’s understanding of the Torah, because Israel’s unfaithfulness was constituted by her unfaithfulness to the Torah, which meant that she was causing the nations to blaspheme rather than to praise God. Christ solves this problem because His faithfulness is precisely his act of fidelity to the Torah. The “doers of the law” who are “justified” are those who share in Christ’s act of Torah-faithfulness. What it means to do the Torah has been reconfigured around the faithfulness of Jesus Christ. The faithfulness of the Christian to the law means dying and rising with Christ. Hence, it is not a law of works, but a law of faith (3:27). Because Christ did the law in the truest sense, this establishes rather than overthrows the law (Rom. 3:31).

This then raises the question of Abraham, not because Abraham is an example of justification by faith or law, but instead because Abraham is the father of the covenant people. His justification is the justification of his family. The question in Romans 4:1 is this: What then shall we say? Have we found Abraham our forefather according to the flesh? This translation has been questioned by most scholars, but I believe it is quite firmly established. First, Paul frequently asks a question with “what then”, only to answer the question in the negative (Rom. 3:9, 6:15, 7:7, 8:31). Second, for Paul, “in the flesh” is exactly the position one should not be in (Rom. 8:4-13). Third, Paul elsewhere exposits Abraham’s family as being born not “according to the flesh” but rather “according to the Spirit” (Gal. 4:29). Taken together, the weight of evidence is decisive.

The argument of Rom. 4, then, is about the nature of Abraham’s fatherhood. Abraham’s faith was “counted to him as righteousness,” says Paul, quoting Gen. 15:6. There, the meaning of “counted as righteousness” is “God cut a covenant with him” (Gen. 15:7–21). That is why Paul says that Abraham is the “heir of the world” (Rom. 4:13). That is why the question is of the identity of the “heirs” (Rom. 4:14). God swore to Abraham that He would give him land (and descendants, which we will come to shortly) before he was circumcised. Hence, the condition for the inheritance cannot be circumcision, which was given after the promise was set in stone. In Rom. 4:17–25, Paul exposits the nature of Abraham’s faith. It is a faith that God will bring life out of his body, which was “already dead” (Rom. 4:19). That is why God guaranteed him the inheritance (4:22). For those who have the faith of Abraham, they too are heirs (4:23). It all comes together in 4:24–25, where the faith that Abraham exhibited is the prototype for Christian faith. Christian faith is in the God who brought life out of death by raising Jesus from the dead. Hence, the inheritance of the world will be received by those who believe in the God who raised Jesus from the dead. Importantly, the juridical element to salvation cannot even be distinguished from the participationist, since God declared Christ to be “in the right” precisely by raising Him from the dead. When we share in Christ’s death and therefore his resurrection, we too are “in the right.” That is, any “juridical” interpretation of justification is already participationist because of the way the verdict has been reconfigured in light of the Christ-event. That’s why Paul calls 6:3–4, participation in the death and resurrection of the Messiah, “justification” (Rom. 6:7).

EHRMAN: [A]nd “the wages of sin is death” (i.e., death is the penalty for all who have sinned, Rom 6:23).

In Romans 6, Paul has argued that in Baptism, we have died to our flesh and come alive in Christ. Hence, as slaves of Christ, we are able to transform our bodies into instruments of righteousness (Rom. 6:11–18). In Rom. 6:21, Paul says that the fruit the Christian was getting from his old way of life is death. Now, having been liberated from sin (6:22) we are able to get a different kind of fruit, good works. That fruit itself leads to life. It is not, therefore, that Christ does the law instead of the Christian. It is that Christ does the law so that by the Spirit, the Christian may embody his law-doing.

EHRMAN: The divine solution to this problem is again conceived in judicial terms.  Jesus is one who does not deserve the death sentence; he instead dies to pay the penalty for others.  God shows that he is satisfied with this payment by raising Jesus from the dead (Rom 3:23-24; 4:24-25).

This screens out an important dimension of Pauline thought: he does not argue that Christ received the penalty of death instead of humanity. Instead, he argues that Christ received death so that human beings, dying with him, may also rise with him. That is why in Rom. 8:17 (hearkening back to the inheritance theme of Rom. 4), Paul says that “if we suffer with him, we may also be glorified with him.” Furthermore, Rom. 4:24–25 does not say that the resurrection simply demonstrated God’s acceptance of Christ’s payment. Instead, Paul argues that the God Abraham believed in was the God who creates out of nothing (creates circumcised hearts out of fore-skinned Gentiles) and brings life out of death (raising from the dead Jesus our Lord) so that our sharing in Christ’s faith (Rom. 3:22) is in fact the fulfillment of Abraham’s faith. That is why Christ was constituted as heir of the world by his resurrection (Rom. 1:3–4).

EHRMAN: Humans can avail themselves of Christ’s payment of their debt simply by trusting that God will find it acceptable.  It is not a payment they have either earned or deserved; it is a beneficent act done on their behalf by someone else, an act that can be either accepted or rejected (3:27–28; 4:4–5).

Rom. 3:27–28, given the above, is about the new meaning of “doing the law” in light of how Christ kept the law to bring Israel’s covenant story to its finale. Rom. 4:4–5 is notoriously difficult to interpret, but I believe we can make serious headway given what has been written above. Gen. 15, quoted in Rom. 4:3, promises to Abraham that he will receive a “reward” constituted by a land and by a family. Paul deals with the land theme from 4:13–25. In 4:1–12, he deals with the theme of the family. Abraham is the one who “believes in him who justifies the ungodly.” There is simply nothing in Genesis to indicate that Abraham himself is ungodly at this point. Actually, Genesis already tells of Abraham’s great faith in Gen. 12. I believe that the issue for Paul is God’s justification of Gentiles. Abraham believes that God will reward him with a land and with a family as numberless as the stars. Paul, In Rom. 4:17 quotes Gen. 17 to clarify this, interpreting it to mean that Abraham is the father of many nations. That is exposited to mean that God calls into being things that do not exist. Rom. 4:4–5, then, is about the fact that Abraham believed in the God of the family, that God would call into existence a transnational family of lots of ungodly Gentiles. The theme of the “call” later appears in Rom. 9:23–24 concerning God’s incorporation of Gentiles into his family.

EHRMAN: [T]hose who accept it are then treated as if they are “not guilty” (even though they are in fact completely guilty), because someone else has accepted their punishment for them.

Though this model is enormously popular in the evangelical world, I have argued that it is irreconcilable with the text.

First, Paul believes that the faith of Christ is shared in by the Christian. With respect to Abraham, this means that he believed in the God who brings life out of death. In Romans 5, Paul sees the Christian as formerly dead in Adam, but now alive in Christ. In chapter 6, Paul sees the Christian as formerly dead in sin, but now alive in God. In chapter 8, Paul sees the Christian as formerly dying by the flesh, but now living by the Spirit. It is chapter 8 which is most problematic for Dr. Ehrman’s understanding, because Rom. 8:3–4 says that “the righteous requirement of the law is fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.” It is therefore the deeds of the Christian, in union with Christ (Rom. 8:17) that lead him to be a “doer of the law,” and hence, “justified” (Rom. 2:6–8,13).

Christ, therefore, did not die so that one might live. He died so that one might die in Christ—and he now lives so that one might also live in him.


  1. joseph says

    According to St Seraphim of Sarov,”The true aim of our christian life consists in the acquisition of the Holy Spirit of God.As for fasts,and vigils,and prayer, and almsgiving,and every good deed done for Christ’s sake,they are only means of acquring the Holy Spirit of God.But mark, my son,only the good deed done for Christ’s sake brings us the fruits of the Holy Spirit.All that is not done for Christ’s sake,even though it be good,brings neither reward in the future life nor the grace of God in this.That is why our Lord Jesus Christ said:’He who gathers not with Me scatters'(Luke 11:23)

  2. says

    We are all, I think, very much in your debt for this thoughtful, informed, and incisive piece; I have recommended it to friends and colleagues, and look forward to the rest of the series. Thank you.

  3. says

    I haven’t read Ehrman’s book. Is he quoting the American evangelical understanding of Romans, or is he subconsciously reiterating his own evangelical upbringing?

    • Evan L says

      More often than not, I’ve seen Mr. Ehrman the average Evangelical understandings of these things. Though Evangelical beliefs vary here and there depending on denominations.