Karma, Catholicism and Keeping Torah image

Karma, Catholicism and Keeping Torah

A few days ago, I tweeted: “When handling Paul & the Law, remember: C1st Torah-keeping, C16th Catholic merit-mongering & C21st secular karma are three different things.” Someone asked me to elaborate in a blog post – so here goes.

The apostle Paul spent a fair bit of his time opposing the idea that people could be justified by works of Torah. In Romans, and especially in Galatians, he builds up quite a head of steam opposing the idea – which some were clearly circulating – that justification could take place by erga tou nomou, usually translated “works of the Law”. In Galatia, the problem surfaced as Judaizers began persuading Gentiles to get circumcised, and Jewish people in the church (including, famously, Peter) began withdrawing from table fellowship with Gentiles for fear of offending other Jews. Much of Paul’s polemic, then, is directed against an ethnically divisive approach to obeying Torah in his generation, which misunderstands both the final basis on which God justifies people and the fundamental ethnic unity of the people of God.

Martin Luther, whose reading of Romans and Galatians is surely the most influential within the entire Protestant tradition, had a related but somewhat different problem. Unlike Paul, for whom the problem was those who insisted that Gentiles should perform works of Torah to be full members of God’s people, Luther’s bogeyman (at least by the time he wrote his fuller works on Galatians and Romans) was the system of semi-Pelagian merit-mongering he found in much medieval Roman Catholicism. Because of the similarities between Paul’s passion (justification by faith and not by works of Torah) and Luther’s own passion (justification by faith and not by meritorious human performance), the two were sometimes conflated, not only in Luther’s work but also in those of many subsequent Protestants. That’s why you so often find the Puritans talking about the Torah, and then saying something like “Use 1: this confutes the Papists”. Paul’s and Luther’s archenemies appeared to have blurred into one.

Twenty-first century Christians have a third take on things, which again is related but somewhat different. For many of us, the key difference between Christianity and other religions or worldviews is that Christianity is a relationship, not a religion: nobody can earn their way into salvation (= religion, by works), and instead we need to be rescued unilaterally by coming to faith in Jesus (= relationship, by grace). In the world we live in, those who would compel people to be justified by works of Torah have all but disappeared, and semi-Pelagian works-righteousness is pretty rare too (although the Pope’s recent pronouncements on indulgences are making me rethink that one). But there are all sorts of people who live on the basis of an ill-defined deistic karma, imagining that the lives they lead are perfectly acceptable, and that if there is a God – which they aren’t sure they believe anyway – he’s sure to be nice enough to let them into whatever heaven he’s got up his sleeve when all is said and done. So we read our bogeyman (nice, ordinary, quasi-karmic moralists) into Luther’s (meritorious medieval Catholics), who himself read his own bogeyman into Paul’s (Judaizers who wanted Gentiles to be circumcised). And in doing so, we get in a muddle about what Paul was and wasn’t saying, and as often as not, about what 21st century secular people are and aren’t saying. I mean, when was the last time you met a secular Westerner who thought we could be vindicated at the final judgment if only we observed the Torah?

None of which is to say that Paul has nothing to say about moralism or semi-Pelagianism (just read Ephesians 2). It’s just to say that, as Tom Wright is fond of saying, we have often got trapped into giving C21st answers to C16th questions, when we should be looking for C1st answers to C21st questions. Torah-observance, treasuries of merit and secular karma are, I’m sure, related in some ways, but they remain three different things.

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