#29—Adam Miller’s Grace is Not God’s Backup Plan [MIPodcast]
BLAIR HODGES: It’s the Maxwell Institute Podcast. I’m Blair Hodges. Thanks for listening to another episode. Paul’s New Testament letter to the Romans is one of the most important Christian writings ever recorded. The passage of time has obscured the letters of original context, not to mention the language it’s been rendered in from its original Greek to the more archaic King James English. The letter can make it difficult for readers today to appreciate the logic of Paul’s testimony of Jesus.
Latter-day Saint philosopher Adam Miller believes Romans and its emphasis on grace is perhaps the best articulation of the gospel of Christ found in the Bible. So as a follow-up to his recent bestselling book Letters to a Young Mormon, Miller published a personal rendition of Romans called Grace is Not God’s Backup Plan: An Urgent Paraphrase of Paul’s Letter to the Romans. So in this episode Miller talks about why he created his own rendition of the text, will read from it, and compare some passages to King James Version passages. We’ll also discuss the most recent Mormon Theology Seminar, which Adam co-directed at Union Theological Seminary in New York.
Questions and comments about this and other episodes of the Maxwell Institute Podcast can be sent to me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Please take a moment to rate and review the show in iTunes and share it with your friends.
BLAIR HODGES: Adam Miller, welcome back to the Maxwell Institute Podcast.
ADAM MILLER: Thanks.
HODGES: We’re talking about a book you just released. The book is called Grace is Not God’s Backup Plan: An Urgent Paraphrase of Paul’s Letter to the Romans. You start the book off in the introduction with kind of a provocative line that I’m sure nitpickers will love to unpack. You say, “The book of Romans is a rare thing in religion: an explanation.” Go ahead and unpack that a little bit.
MILLER: Well I think that’s just straightforwardly true. You get in the course of thousands of pages of scripture; you get a lot of stories, you get a lot of history, you get a lot of parables, you get some prophecies, you get some poetry, you get some psalms, you get the occasional sermon, but you never get any kind of extended, clear, logically precise account of how the big pieces of the Christian story are supposed to fit together.
I think we kind of take for granted two thousand years later, as Christians we kind of take for granted the fact that the whole of the story does hang together in a particular way. But I think on the basis of the scriptures themselves, both biblical and Mormon, a lot of how those pieces fit together is not always obvious from the texts themselves.
HODGES: Okay. So in the Book of Mormon you’ll have occasional sermons where, King Benjamin for example kind of lays out how they’re going to become the children of Christ and walks them through that, or the Savior in Third Nephi eleven will walk through what we now know as the beatitudes and lay out the essential elements of the gospel.
You’re saying Paul is a little bit different because, number one, it’s a lot longer, it’s more sustained, and number two, maybe the style of what he’s doing sets it apart. He’s using reason, he’s kind of laying out a logical case.
MILLER: Yeah, I think Romans is not only unique, I think, across the whole of scripture, but it’s even unique in relationship to the rest of Paul’s epistles because this letter is a letter that number one, Paul writes relatively late in his life, so he’s had a lot of time to think about and chew over and try out different ways of explaining what the gospel is, but number two, this is a letter that he is writing to the people in Rome who he has never met.
So he is attempting, for their sake, to kind of lay out piece by piece from the ground up exactly what the gospel is, and he goes to great pains to show how those pieces fit together.
HODGES: Sometimes it’s difficult, especially for me when I’m reading the King James Version it can be difficult to make sense of those pieces. King James, it can be very poetic and I like the language of it generally but sometimes the age of the language can obscure it for me. Paul himself has a distinctive style, even when you read different translations of Paul, I think people get the sense that he’s writing in a different vein here than a lot of other scripture authors.
So maybe talk for a second about Paul’s style and the problem of translating scripture into different languages and the kind of stylistic issues that come up.
MILLER: I think you’re right. There are kind of two sets of obstacles that exist for us as we try to understand Paul. One is to familiarize ourselves enough with Paul’s world and way of speaking that can make sense for us, but the other obstacle too is the obstacle that we face given that we’re reading Paul not just in a translation of the original Greek, but we’re reading Paul in a translation that is itself hundreds of years old. We’re reading it typically as Mormons in the King James Version, and as you pointed out the King James Version, the King James rendering of Paul’s letter to the Romans is phenomenally beautiful. Stunningly beautiful and consistently opaque to the point that you often can’t tell what is being said at all, let alone how the pieces fit together. There may be no book of scripture in all the scripture that suffers more in terms of its coherence in the King James translation than the book of Romans.
HODGES: One of the things you mention in your introduction is, here’s a quote from you, “We need our renderings of scripture to do more than mimic the original, we need them to bleed and breathe.”
So talk a little bit about your process of doing this book, because it’s not a strict translation, and talk about what you meant by needing renderings to bleed and breathe. We don’t usually personify texts that way.
MILLER: Well as you point out, this isn’t a kind of literal word-for-word translation of Paul’s letter to the Romans. It is, as the subtitle describes it, a kind of paraphrase of Paul’s letter. It occurred to me when I first started working on this book that if I were to give myself a kind of freer hand in terms of how I rendered things at the level of the word-for-word translations of Paul’s text, if I were to give myself a freer hand there, then I would be in a position to be more faithful to making clear the elements of argument that Paul is making.
I think a lot of times even contemporary, even good contemporary translations of Paul’s letter to the Romans get hamstrung by their fidelity to the details of exactly what’s involved in translating Paul’s letter at the level of the word, and this gets in the way of making clear how all the big picture elements of Paul’s account of the gospel fit together.
HODGES: So as far as bleeding and breathing are concerned, how does your approach bring out that kind of an element?
MILLER: Well this is the other thing, I think. You have to, in rendering what Paul says, you have to pay attention on the one hand to just what Paul’s saying in terms of his language, in terms of the words, in terms of the logic of the argument. But on the other hand, you have to pay attention to the experience that is at the root of what Paul is trying to describe. If you ignore the way that Christian experience itself informs the logic that Paul is attempting to put together for us here in his explanation of the gospel, then you end up missing what Paul’s after anyway.
HODGES: I think another thing is just the force of particular metaphors in any given culture. In an interview I did with Lauren Winner a couple of episodes ago she was talking about how Jesus taught using parables, and his parables were always informed by things Jesus would encounter on a regular Tuesday or Wednesday. Casting seed alongside of the roads, that sort of thing. It seems like the further people are from those contexts, the less power those parables can potentially have.
So it seems like the same kind of thing happened with Paul, where you’re kind of introducing his logic and thought into a more contemporary idiom, into a more contemporary, I kind of want to say the word social imaginary, the Charles Taylor thing where you’re bringing it into a picture of life and of the world that maybe more quickly resonates with people.
MILLER: Yeah. So, that’s exactly right. So on the one hand I wanted to pay close attention to the letter of Paul’s text, but on the other hand I wanted that attention to be informed by paying really close attention to the kind of life that Paul was trying to describe. If that life doesn’t end up informing how we render the letter, then there’s not much point in rendering the letter anyway
HODGES: Yeah, there’s a linguistic rendering, and there’s maybe a life-world rendering.
MILLER: Yeah, it’s kind of the existential rendering. A phenomenological rendering.
HODGES: Right. Now the question I had, I don’t remember seeing this addressed, was if you made use of the Greek. Did you actually go back to the original languages? Or what did you use as your sources to put this paraphrase together?
MILLER: I’m a professor of philosophy. My training is in philosophy, but I passed the language exams in both Greek and French as part of my doctoral work. I wrote my dissertation on Paul, and on this epistle to the Romans and the way Paul’s work gets taken up into the contemporary European philosophy.
So I’ve been working with this text in a kind of non-Mormon setting professionally for about a decade now, and when I went back to work on this particular little paraphrase I did it with kind of three texts open all before me at the same time. I had on the one hand the King James Version, on the other hand I also had a nice clean contemporary translation done by N.T. Wright, who’s maybe the eminent scholar of Christian scholar alive on the planet today, it’s a beautiful translation, and the Greek text as well. So I consulted all three as I went about freely paraphrasing my own version.
HODGES: Alright, so that gives us a general idea of how you worked. I want to maybe expand a little bit on something you just talked about. So as a philosopher you focused on Paul in your own philosophical work. For people who believe that the academic world doesn’t have a lot of space for religious thought, or the idea that secularism crowds out religious thought, scripture, belief, and these types of things, talk about that in context of your own experience, because it’s not just you who’s taken up Paul, but Paul seems to be a popular figure in the academy for maybe a surprising range of philosophers.
MILLER: Yeah, I think that is true. I mean, I think one of the things that’s been helpful for me is that to the degree that the academy is secular and a lot of the contemporary thinkers who are interested in Paul are not religious, for instance I wrote my dissertation in part about Alain Badiou, a contemporary French thinker who is without a doubt an atheist, but nonetheless very interested in Paul. But because a lot of the interest in Paul comes from people who are looking at him from outside of a religious context, that makes it easier in some ways for me looking at Paul from within the religious context to see those elements of Paul that speak directly to a kind of universal dimensions of the human experiences that are shared by everyone regardless of whether you’re religious or not.
I think that it’s often the case that when we try to think about religious ideas, the most important elements of those religious ideas are elements that are not themselves uniquely religious.
HODGES: Before we dig into the actual text, here’s another quote from your introduction. This kind of will give people a general sense of the main message that you find in Paul and you present in your rendition. You say, “It’s my argument that the deep logic of Romans comes into sharp focus around a single premise: Paul’s claim that grace is not God’s backup plan.”
That’s your book’s title as well, of course, and it’s really striking, so we’ll talk about your actual articulation of grace in a second, but I was wondering if you remembered what you were doing when that particular line came to you because it’s really catchy and it’s a nice little bullet point. Do you remember how that came to you?
MILLER: Well the title itself came to me as most everything decent that I write does, it came to me while I was running in the morning, though if I remember right some version of that phrase shows up in the first book that I published that was based on my dissertation that involved in part a reading of the letter to the Romans. So I think that some version of that phrase goes back a long way for me, a good ten years now, though it maybe didn’t have quite this form.
HODGES: The book is Grace is Not God’s Backup Plan. We’re speaking today with Adam Miller. His other books include Rube Goldberg Machines: Essays in Mormon Theology, and of course the book that the Maxwell Institute published, Letters to a Young Mormon, which is one of the best-selling titles that we’ve ever produced here. Adam’s also a professor of philosophy at Collin College in McKinney, Texas.
Adam, let’s turn to the actual text now and talk about grace and go over some of your own rendition here to give people a sense of what you’ve done. I’ve got the King James text here that I’m going to read. Let’s go to Romans chapter one, just begin at the beginning. I’ll read through the King James, and then I’ll have you read your rendering so people can get a sense for how the language compares and that sort of thing. This is Romans chapter one, verses one through seven. I’ll read the King James and then you can read your rendition.
1 Paul, a servant of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle, separated unto the gospel of God, 2 (Which he had promised afore by his prophets in the holy scriptures,) 3 Concerning his Son Jesus Christ our Lord, which was made of the seed of David according to the flesh; 4 And declared to be the Son of God with power, according to the spirit of holiness, by the resurrection from the dead: 5 By whom we have received grace and apostleship, for obedience to the faith among all nations, for his name: 6 Among whom are ye also the called of Jesus Christ: 7 To all that be in Rome, beloved of God, called to be saints: Grace to you and peace from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ.
Okay, so that’s a bit of a mouthful. Go ahead and read yours there.
MILLER: And a lot of that in the Greek essentially unfolds as a single sentence, which is effectively impossible in English.
HODGES: Sort of a David Foster Wallace of the scriptures with the interminable sentence.
MILLER: Greek lends itself to that kind of thing in a way the English doesn’t, too.
Let me say one thing about my own rendition, is that the rendition involves paraphrasing rather than rendering things for word for word, but too I also in order to foreground the logic of what Paul was saying and how the pieces fit together, I sometimes in my paraphrase either shortened elements of the original text, or slightly expanded elements of the original text. So there’s that to consider.
HODGES: Okay. Yeah, good.
MILLER: It’s not word for word. Some things I cut, shortened, some things I expanded, always for the sake of clarifying the logic of what he was after.
HODGES: So with that in mind, go ahead and give your rendition there from Romans chapter one.
MILLER: “A letter from Paul to those living at the heart of the empire: I am bound to Jesus, my rescuer. He called me to him. He sent me to you. He sifted me with God’s good news. From the beginning, God promised to rescue us and this promise was announced and written down and repeated by many people, all over the world, for a long time. Jesus is the living embodiment of this promise because he is flesh and blood, descended from great and terrible men, and—still!—he was named as God’s Son through a Spirit that reached out and snatched him back from the dead.
“This same Spirit claimed me and then sent me to you. I’ve been sent to encourage your trust in the promise Jesus embodies and to embolden you to submit to its troubles. You, too, regardless of your flesh, regardless of your weakness and ignorance, are called to bind yourself to Jesus. So, to all of you loved by God (and, thus, to all of you called to discover what it means to be both human and holy), I wish grace and peace from God our Father and from Jesus, my rescuer, to whom I am bound.”
HODGES: Alright, so maybe first talk about that binding element that you bring up. “I am bound to Jesus.” Paul, of course, begins, “Paul, a servant of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle, separated unto the gospel of God.” So talk about your notion of binding that you introduce.
MILLER: Well it shows up in two different ways in my translation, and always in the back of my mind as I’m using this language, always in the back of my mind as a Mormon is the language of sealing, sealing and binding. But this construction, being bound to Jesus, being bound to God, shows up two ways in the text.
On the one hand it can be a translation of Paul’s use of the word “Lord,” because your lord is the one to whom you are bound, right? Paul describes himself as a servant of Jesus.
HODGES: A servant, right?
MILLER: A servant, or probably a better translation of what’s going on there in the Greek. The Greek word means a slave, he’s a slave, Paul is saying, of Jesus Christ. So in part this is my attempt to render that. What does it mean to be a slave to Jesus? It means that you are bound to him, he is your Lord.
But the other way that phrase shows up consistently in my translation is that it translates in part, Paul’s key theological term, which has kind of driven theologians and translators mad over the millennia trying to translate, and that word in Greek has to do with the righteousness of God, or with the justification, God justifying us in relationship to him.
Part of what I mean to capture in my translation of this is the way that at the root of God’s righteousness and his attempt to righteous-ify us, is a kind of covenant faithfulness, is God’s being bound to us. That’s what it means for God to be righteous, and this is what he wants in terms of righteousness, to be made right with God is to be set in relationship to him in such a way that we are bound together.
This is something that N.T. Wright in his contemporary translation of Paul’s letter makes really plain. He always translates this part as “covenant faithfulness,” and I think that catches the flavor of what Paul’s after.
HODGES: It’s an interesting interpretive choice too, because it takes into consideration the fact that words connote different things to different audiences. So a lot of minds would go to more contemporary instances of slavery. So you kind of do away with that, the potential to follow that train of thought by introducing this idea of being bound.
So I think that’s kind of exemplary of some of the rendition decisions that are made, where you’re taking into account the fact that these words are going to connote particular things to particular audiences. How mindful of that were you throughout the process?
MILLER: I was very mindful of trying to render Paul’s argument in a very brisk and contemporary idiom. Giving it as a kind of paraphrase, I just gave myself license to do it.
HODGES: Yeah. Well with like slavery though some people would say hey, I’m going to be so brisk, I’m going to make this so stark that I’m just going to say it, it’ll be a little shocking. You could use that slavery metaphor to shock or to draw attention as well. So you could have started it off… you started off by saying, “A letter to Paul to those living at the heart of the empire.” You could have started off by saying, “Paul, a slave of Jesus Christ…”
MILLER: I think that’s not a bad rendition.
HODGES: I mean, that’s what the text says, right?
MILLER: Yeah, and even in a kind of existential level, it’s not a bad rendition I don’t think. My decision there, for instance, is informed as a lot of the decisions were, is informed by how I saw Paul eventually weaving all of these pieces together into a larger whole. So given, for instance, that I knew that binding and sealing were going to be important elements of how I translated the rest of the letter, that in turn influenced how I translated the other parts of the letter.
HODGES: Good. That’s really good. Let’s move on to another example. It’s in the same chapter, actually, and it’s where it discusses the concept of sin. I think this is one of the most important sections. It’s good that the letter starts out this way because it seems to be a really important signpost in the way that you interpret Paul in your rendition. So I’m going to read verses sixteen through twenty-three of Romans one, and then you can pick up there on page fourteen. So here it is from Romans chapter one:
16 For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ: for it is the power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth; to the Jew first, and also to the Greek. 17 For therein is the righteousness of God revealed from faith to faith: as it is written, The just shall live by faith. 18 For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who hold the truth in unrighteousness; 19 Because that which may be known of God is manifest in them; for God hath shewed it unto them. 20 For the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power and Godhead; so that they are without excuse: 21 Because that, when they knew God, they glorified him not as God, neither were thankful; but became vain in their imaginations, and their foolish heart was darkened. 22 Professing themselves to be wise, they became fools, 23 And changed the glory of the incorruptible God into an image made like to corruptible man.
Alright, there are a lot of ideas in this brief section. You tend to focus on trust, sin, and grace. So go ahead and read your rendition of that.
MILLER: “I’m glad to finally be sent to you. I’m not ashamed of the good news I bear. It’s the only thing that’s saved me from sleepwalking through my own life, broken hearted and dead to the world. God’s promise is powerful and its power to rescue extends both to insiders and outsiders. God doesn’t care which you are.
“Without waiting for you or checking your credentials, God has already bound himself to you. God’s power to make things right is revealed when his trust meets your trust. As many have said for a long time: those who are set right and sealed to God are brought back to life by their trust.
“But if your trust fails and you suppress the truth, God’s love will start to feel like an accusation. If, selfish and weak, you try to run from life and its troubles, you’ll feel trapped and smothered by the gifts God is giving. Sin is this too proud denial of God’s grace. It’s this refusal to be sealed to God. Grace isn’t God’s improvised response to sin. Sin is our ongoing refusal of God’s already given grace.
“Even for the selfish and weak, even without any supernatural epiphanies, what can be known about God and the life he offers is clear. It’s been plain from the beginning. There’s no mystery here. What it means to be alive is obvious. God’s power and glory are already on display.
“Deny it if you want. But if you see what’s given and then fail to respond to that grace with grace of your own, your mind will go dark. You won’t be able to think straight and you’ll get stuck in your own head, left to cook in your own fears and fantasies. Claiming to be wise, you’ll be an idiot. You’ll have exchanged a life pulsing with Spirit for a wishful menagerie of dead things and dying applause.”
HODGES: Okay, the first thing I’d like to point out here is Paul talks about the wrath of God being revealed, in verse eighteen, the wrath of God is revealed. So as I’m going through obviously I don’t see the word wrath, I do… I tried to find a place where you incorporated that idea. It seemed to be in your paragraph there, by the way there are verse markings in your margins that kind of let readers know about where you’re at, so in the margin there next to eighteen it’s where you talk about if your trust fails and you suppress the truth, God’s love will start to feel like an accusation. Was that kind of where that idea was incorporated? Or is it something else?
MILLER: Yeah, I think that’s right. Accusation there, God’s love feeling like an accusation, that’s what I think Paul is after there with the wrath of God. What happens is when you and I, when we attempt as Paul puts it, when we attempt to suppress God’s love and grace, then that distorts how his love looks to us. His gestures of love, the gestures of love and grace that he’s making toward us because we’re trying to suppress those gestures, they end up looking to us like accusations. They end up looking like he’s angry when he’s actually trying to reach out and love us.
HODGES: You connect this to the idea of sin. Actually, there’s a chapter in Letters to a Young Mormon called “Sin.” I believe actually that chapter’s available on the Maxwell Institute website, so people can read that as a sample chapter.
This is a chapter that people bring up to me a lot whenever I talk to them about this book, to do a little buzz marketing for Letters to a Young Mormon, so when I talk to people about Letters to a Young Mormon they bring up this chapter. It’s a really tough one to wrap their minds around, because we’re used to talking about sin as a bad action, a bad decision, a bad choice, breaking a commandment, doing something bad in general. Your approach through Paul seems to widen that definition.
Maybe discuss that idea of sin a little bit, because it can be really hard to grasp, I think. I’m still working on grasping that, so help me out.
MILLER: I think it’s the key to understanding everything else that Paul says in the letter about what grace is, about what sin is, and about what both grace and sin have to do with the law. This letter to the Romans is organized around those three ideas. It’s organized around that relationship between grace and sin and the law. If we can make any sense out of what Paul has to say about the law it depends on understanding what he says here, especially in the opening chapter about the relationship between grace and sin.
I think the really key thing here to see about Paul’s description of sin is that it reverses the way we normally think about the relationship between grace and sin. Normally we think about sin as this thing that comes first. There’s a law, you and I break it, and then maybe if we measure up in a certain kind of way, God’s grace will come and make up the difference such that we can overcome our sinfulness. But Paul totally reverses it here, and I think correctly, the relationship between sin and grace. It’s not the case that grace is just God’s response to sin. It’s the case that sin, at root, is our suppression, our rejection of an original grace that God has always already been trying to offer us. As Paul puts it here, that grace shines through primarily in the creation of the world. The world as a created thing, God’s power and glory and grace shine through the world, the created world, as the gift that he’s trying to give us. It’s our suppression of these gifts that God is trying to give us that is sin’s most fundamental gesture.
I think this parallels in really straightforward ways the kind of things that President Benson had to say about all sin in the end being some version or other of pride. Pride is this rejection of God’s grace. It’s this wanting to stand on your own two feet and do it yourself and not have to depend on God, and not have to receive all these gifts that God is giving that you probably don’t even want.
So if we understand sin in this really broad kind of existentially fundamental way as our suppression of the grace that God from the beginning has been trying to give us, then I think that totally reframes not only how we understand sin in relationship to grace, but it totally reframes how we can understand the law in relationship to both grace and sin.
HODGES: Your presentation of sin, your rendition of Paul’s presentation of sin, puts sin and grace into close contact. So let’s also expand a little bit more on grace. I think one of the clues that you give about your conception of grace here is that grace is, let’s see what verse this is in, well basically that God already loves you, that God’s already bound himself to you.
Then you say, even without any supernatural epiphanies what can be known about God and the life he offers is clear, it’s plain from the beginning, all of God’s power and glory are on display. And Paul is being more specific. He’s talking about the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made. Is this sort of like a, hey look around at the world, it’s an amazing gift and every moment is a gift, is that where he’s trying to situate grace? How do you read that?
MILLER: I think for Paul the most fundamental manifestation of God’s grace is in the act of creation itself. It’s our refusal on the one hand of at least in part the created world, and maybe even more particularly on the other hand, of our own created-ness, of our own dependence on that world, and on God. It’s our rejection of that dependence that defines what sin is.
So I think what Paul gives us here, we could say, what Paul gives us is a kind of general theory of grace. Normally when we think about grace we think about it only in very narrow kind of specialized terms, and we think about grace only insofar as grace intervenes in our experience of redemption.
HODGES: Grace equals forgiveness basically.
MILLER: Yeah, grace equals forgiveness. It equals forgiveness in connection with maybe some contribution of our own, such that a certain amount of works plus a certain amount of grace will output a certain amount of forgiveness.
HODGES: And God still wins because he initially gives that opportunity before you even do anything. So the grace versus works, and then you can say there’s even grace before that, but you have to tap into that and that sort of a thing. But it’s always about repenting or reconciling.
MILLER: Right. Yeah, but I think if we only understand grace in this very specialized way in the context of redemption, if we don’t see grace as a description of God’s general M.O. in terms of how he operates in relationship to the world, then we’ll miss the way that grace isn’t something that intervenes at the end to save us, but the grace is the thing that came at the beginning that we rejected, that is the root of the sinfulness that we’re trying to overcome.
So it’s not so much the case, for instance, that you and I have to put ourselves in a position to receive some kind of grace that might come at the end of our story, but it’s the case that because sin is a suppression of the grace that God is already giving, my overcoming my sinfulness just involves my laying down my rebellious rejection of the grace that’s already being offered.
HODGES: So it’s almost like, I guess another way to put it would be, God’s grace includes forgiveness. That’s one facet, that’s one expression of that grace, but that expression of grace can be understood to be part of a wider type of grace that includes God’s care for us, his creation, us as children, us in relationship to him, the gifts that are given, so grace kind of is that bigger picture that’s driven toward binding relationships. Any relationship requires forgiveness, so forgiveness and redemption is part of that overall picture of grace, but that’s because forgiveness and redemption is any part of loving bond.
MILLER: This is the kind of thing that Elder McConkie is after for instance when he says that if you want to understand the plan of salvation you have to understand the three pillars of eternity, and the three pillars of eternity are creation, fall, and atonement. The way he explains it, you can’t understand the atonement if you don’t understand the fall. You can’t understand the fall if you don’t understand creation. The reason you can’t understand the fall if you don’t understand creation is because the fall, our falling into sinfulness, depends on our rejection of that original grace manifest in creation itself. It’s grace, sin, grace. Creation, fall, atonement.
Grace isn’t the backup plan here that intervenes at the end of the story to make things work out. Grace is the plan from the beginning. It is from beginning to end a description of the way that God in terms of love is interacting with the world and with us. It’s what he wants to share with us, and it’s what he wants us to become capable of. It’s grace all the way down. If turtles are grace, it’s grace all the way down.
HODGES: Another part of this that stuck out to me is in verse sixteen where Paul says that the power of God unto salvation is given to everyone that believeth to the Jew first, and also to the Greek. You replace Jew and Greek with insider and outsider. This is throughout the letter, because Paul continues to talk about Gentiles and Jews. So talk about the decision to replace that with insider, outsider.
MILLER: That may be the second basic translation decision I had to make in rendering the letter, was how I was going to render Paul’s discussion of the relationship between the Jew and the Gentile. I rendered Jew throughout the letter whenever Paul says Jew I render it as insider, the religious insider, and I render Greek as outsider, the religious outsider.
I think that stays true to most of what Paul is after, in his own letter in terms of what he has to say about the relationships between the Jew and the Greek, between the Jew and the Gentile, but I think it also makes it possible for us to read the letter in a different way than we normally do. Normally when we read what Paul has to say about the relationship between the Jews and the Gentiles, we identify with the Gentiles. That is to say, with the religious outsiders. But I think it’s a lot more accurate when we’re reading Paul’s letter to identify ourselves with the position occupied with the Jews, with the religious insiders. As Mormons we understand ourselves as religious insiders, as people with kind of an inside track on God’s revelation, on access to priesthood authority, things like this.
That’s what Paul has in mind. What Paul has in mind in this entire discussion of relationship between the Jews and the Gentiles is the way that God’s grace confounds and reorganizes the lines that we normally draw between people who are religious and people who aren’t, that the line between the saved and the unsaved is not the same thing as the line between the religious and the non-religious. It’s not the same thing as the line between the insider and the outsider. The line between those who have received God’s grace, and those who haven’t cuts diagonally across that typical religious distinction. That’s one of Paul’s most basic points he wants to make about grace.
I think it’s a little hard to get our heads around it when we just render it as Jew and Gentile and especially when we identify ourselves with the outsiders rather than the insiders.
HODGES: Yeah. I think Romans chapter nine is where he really unpacks this, because he brings up specific ideas of adoptions and covenants and priesthood, law, ordinances, and you talk about in your rendition of this, and this is on page forty-seven, Romans nine, where God entrusted these things—adoption, glory, covenants, priesthood, law, ordinances—God entrusted them to insiders. He entrusted these to Israel, but they failed to trust God in return, denying God’s grace. They faltered. Not all insiders are willing to live by grace.
There’s also a little bit later on, page forty-eight, this would be Romans nine verse eightish, “Being an insider isn’t enough to make you part of the covenant family. Pedigrees and good manners and respectable clothes and properly signed documents aren’t enough. Only a willingness to trust God’s promise can make you Abraham’s seed.” This reminded me of Jesus’s declaration that, or was it John the Baptist, who said “God can raise up from these stones the seed of Abraham.”
Do you think Paul is sort of drawing on that same type of idea when he’s talking about the insiders and outsiders?
MILLER: I think it brings us right to the doorstep of that third term, that’s central to the letter to the Romans. We’ve talked a little bit about grace and we’ve talked a little bit about sin, but the other thing that Paul wants to explain is the relationship between the law and sin and grace.
One of the basic points he makes about the law, and I think this is one of the things that’s typically really hard for us to get our heads around as Mormons, one of the basic points he makes about the law is that, sure, it’s entirely possible to sin by breaking the law, but you can also totally sin, it’s totally impossible to sin by keeping the law. You can keep the law in a way that’s sinful.
HODGES: Based on its effect, based on the way, like we were talking about grace earlier, based on its effect on that overall relationship between you and God and the world.
MILLER: Right. The difference between the two is grace. If you keep the law in a way that denies grace, then you’re still keeping the law in a way that is itself sinful. We can break the law in a way that denies grace, but you can also keep the law in a way that denies grace, in which case being a religious insider who has the law doesn’t do you any good, because the law is just giving you a new way, a religious way, to be a sinner. In fact, it can make it harder for you to change because—
HODGES: You think you don’t need to.
MILLER: Because you think you don’t need to, right. You think you’re already doing what it is that the law intended you to accomplish. But the point of the law is not obedience. The point of the law is love and grace. If you’re using the law to deny God’s grace, then you’re frustrating the whole point of the law itself.
HODGES: This is such a big deal for Paul, especially because of who he was, a transitional figure as Christianity—
MILLER: So huge.
HODGES: Yeah. I mean, Christianity’s differentiating itself from Judaism. Jesus was a Jew. Paul was a Jew. Early converts were Jews. They’re trying to reckon with this relationship between the gospel of Christ and this law that’s got this very distinguished pedigree. Man, it seems to be just, this is at the core of a transition between Judaism and Christianity it seems.
MILLER: I think it’s at the core of religious experience itself. Because religious experience organizes itself around the law. Whether or not religious experience ends up connecting us to God or disconnecting us from God doesn’t depend on whether it’s religious, it depends on how as religious people we relate to the law.
HODGES: Right. So that kind of covers sin, grace, and law, these three large themes. The other one I think, the other theme I would add to that list is just the practical application because Paul has laid out these big ideas and these general principles in a way that’s a little counter-cultural, and he’s trying to bring his listeners around to this new view of the gospel, which I think also has some really great and interesting roots in Judaism. It wasn’t the fact that it just completely overthrew the law; in many ways it was maybe a return to the original purposes for the law.
MILLER: No, it didn’t. As Jesus puts it, it’s to fulfill the law.
HODGES: Right, right. And then we get to Romans chapter twelve, and this is when Paul gets really specific. So he’s talking about actual real life application of these principles he’s explaining. So I’m going to read the King James Version of chapter twelve verses one through five, and then this is on page sixty-one of your paraphrase, and then I’ll have you read your rendition. So here is Romans twelve verses one through five.
1 I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that ye present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, which is your reasonable service. 2 And be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God. 3 For I say, through the grace given unto me, to every man that is among you, not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think; but to think soberly, according as God hath dealt to every man the measure of faith.—this is a tongue twister—4 For as we have many members in one body, and all members have not the same office: 5 So we, being many, are one body in Christ, and every one members one of another.
Alright. Go ahead with yours.
MILLER: Maybe before I read that let me say one thing about Paul being kind of counter-cultural. I think that’s right. I think that Paul has… the interesting thing about Paul is the way that he’s always working diagonally in relationship to those cultural distinctions that define the Jew and define the Greek, so that he’s always frustrating the Jews with the way he talks about things, and he’s also always frustrating the Gentiles with the way that he talks about things.
So if you can imagine someone in contemporary discourse who, whatever he says neither the Republicans nor the Democrats like it, then you get a feel for what Paul was doing. He’s counter-cultural in that sense. Alright, sorry. So here’s the passage from Romans twelve:
“So I urge you, brothers and sisters, offer your bodies to God as a living sacrifice. Consecrate your lives. Worship God by answering his gift with a gift of your own.
“This isn’t easy. Don’t let the demands of a sinful world deform you. Be transfigured by God’s willingness to free your mind from distraction and addiction. Don’t think of yourself as special or heroic. Be sober and pay close attention. Be the kind of earthy, hard-nosed realist your faith in God demands.
“It’s true that you belong to the body of Christ and that’s a great thing. but it’s also true that, cut off from it, you’d die. All the parts need all the others. Each part has a different job. Despite our differences, God’s grace binds us together.”
HODGES: So this body of Christ discussion is captivating. I think this is even more clear in other sections of the rendition, but here where you’ve talked about insiders and outsiders, where Paul has Jews and Gentiles, and then you introduce this idea of even the insiders, that there’s variety within insiders. I don’t know that Paul, Paul might extend the metaphor of the body of Christ to include people that were beyond the church.
MILLER: Yes, I think so. The body of Christ here is not co-extensive with the insiders.
HODGES: Yeah, so talk about that, because it seems like this is a continuation of that resistance, the diagonal line cut across that you talk about.
MILLER: The body of Christ consists of everyone through whom the blood of grace flows. That’s what it means to belong to the body of Christ. As Paul points out early in the letter, it’s possible without even knowing anything about God’s law or revelations, it’s possible to live in such a way that that grace flows through you.
The body of Christ, in a sense then, it transcends those traditional religious distinctions between insider or outsider or covenant people or non-covenant people. As Paul is at great pains to explain, that doesn’t mean it’s not important to be part of the covenant people. He comes back to that point again and again, why it’s still important to be part of the covenant people. But he also wants, without any compromise, to hold the position that the body of Christ is not limited to the covenant people.
HODGES: It’s all part of why Romans is such a tricky book of scripture, such a tricky thing for Paul to pull off, because it simultaneously wants to reaffirm the importance of the body of faith, the community that most people associate with the faithful, but also that that community is important, but he’s also saying it’s not important. So he’s kind of—
MILLER: Yeah, well, I mean he wants to reinform the importance of being part of the covenant people, offers a scathing critique of the covenant people, and describe how it’s possible for those not of the covenant nonetheless to be included in the body of Christ.
HODGES: It’s tough. Man, what a tough job that he had. I think this is one of the things that makes Romans such a standout in the New Testament, and in probably all scripture. All of these tensions. Paul seems to just get right to the core tensions that exist. It can be tough to chew on, but I think the paraphrase here really helps people do that. I think people should pick that up. The book is called Grace is Not God’s Backup Plan: An Urgent Paraphrase of Paul’s Letter to the Romans by Adam Miller. You can pick up a copy of that on Amazon.
Now one other question about this book in particular before we move on. Was there anything as you did this rendering that struck you in a new way? As you did this process you had to pay close attention to the text, so were there any new things that you discovered that were surprising or did a lot of it kind of grow out of things you’d already worked on in your graduate work and in your own personal study?
MILLER: To a large degree this paraphrase arrived fully formed for me because I produced the whole thing in a matter of two or three weeks really. It arrives fully formed not because I’m some kind of genius or some revelatory muse was involved, but because I had been thinking about Romans and exactly the issues involved in Romans as a professional philosopher for the past ten years. I had been thinking about and chewing on and writing about and publishing about these things, especially in non-Mormon venues for a decade. When I got to the point where I decided to take a shot at offering my own paraphrase, the thing was pretty much already fully formed.
HODGES: When did you finally decide to do it? What kind of led to that decision? What made you think oh, this would be a good project? What was the goal here, other than crass monetary personal—
MILLER: I’m raking in the money here. In the three digits, at least. No, the impetus was very clear. We were, as a family for family scripture study, we were reading N.T. Wright’s translation of Romans—
HODGES: And that’s called The Kingdom New Testament, is the one you keep referring to, right?
MILLER: Yeah, that’s right. It’s called The Kingdom New Testament. I highly recommend that translation. But we were reading it together as a family and the kids were just having a blast reading Paul. They especially loved Paul’s tendency to ask rhetorical questions, and then respond in really aggressive ways to his own questions. They had a lot of fun reading that out loud, like when Paul will ask something like, “Does that mean that we should go on sinning because God’s grace is already available? God forbid! Certainly not.” The kids just had a blast with this.
I thought to myself as we were reading as a family, you know, N.T. Wright’s version makes so many things so much clearer than they are in our very old but very beautiful King James translation, but I kept thinking to myself there were so many points in the text where I thought to myself, with a little freer hand you could make much clearer why Paul was saying what he was saying, and how the pieces fit together into a bigger picture. I thought why don’t I just do it then?
HODGES: Yeah, because you have the luxury, like with N.T. Wright he did want to maintain more close fidelity to the text in terms of keeping it as a more proper translation than what you do. Your idea was, hey, it would be nice to have a tool that kind of trimmed away some of the stuff that maybe the kids or even myself would kind of be like, okay, let’s move on to the next idea. It kind of trims some of that stuff away to get to what you understand to be the crux of it, and put that in people’s hands.
MILLER: Yeah. N.T. Wright is constrained by the need to be respectable and rigorous in a way that I was not.
HODGES: You got to be more foolhardy than N.T. Wright.
MILLER: That’s right.
HODGES: Excellent. So that’s Adam Miller. We’re talking about his new book Grace is Not God’s Backup Plan: An Urgent Paraphrase of Paul’s Letter to the Romans. He’s also author of several books including—buzz marketing—the Maxwell Institute’s Letter’s to a Young Mormon as well as Rube Goldberg Machines: A Collection of Essays on Mormon Theology. That one has some pieces in it that are a little more difficult, that’s like the Adam Miller graduate schoolbook. Letters to a Young Mormon, Grace is Not God’s Backup Plan, and Rube Goldberg Machines round out your Mormon offerings.
Then you said you’ve also done some books with other presses. Speculative Grace is one of those books.
MILLER: Speculative Grace. I have a book forthcoming called The Gospel According to David Foster Wallace. My first book was called Badiou, Marion and St. Paul: Immanent Grace. You can see a kind of theme.
MILLER: Grace is straightforwardly my specialization as a philosopher of religion. I specialize in thinking about grace.
HODGES: Another place people can go to read more of Adam’s work is Times and Seasons, where he’s been a blogger for several years now, and also now blogs at By Common Consent as well. So if you’re interested in Adam Miller’s work there’s plenty of stuff to dig into, books, blog posts, and other things.
We’re going to take a quick break right now, and then we’re going to come back and talk a little about the Mormon Theology Seminar, which the Maxwell Institute started co-sponsoring last year, and which this year’s just wrapped up in New York. So we’ll take a quick break and be right back.
HODGES: Hey, this is Blair Hodges from the Maxwell Institute Podcast. Did you know the Maxwell Institute now offers digital subscriptions to our three periodicals? Ten dollars gets you access to the latest issues of the Journal of Book of Mormon Studies, the Mormon Studies Review, and Studies in the Bible and Antiquity. All three for just ten bucks.
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HODGES: It’s the Maxwell Institute Podcast. I’m Blair Hodges. Today I’m talking with Adam Miller. He is author of Grace is Not God’s Backup Plan and Letters to a Young Mormon and other books. He’s also a co-director of the Mormon Theology Seminar.
Adam, you just returned from the Mormon Theology Seminar. That just happened in New York. Let’s talk a little bit about what that is, give a little background on what it’s all about.
MILLER: We just wrapped up our eighth iteration of the Mormon Theology Seminar. The second live version of the Mormon Theology Seminar, and the second one that we could do live because it was co-sponsored by the Maxwell Institute, and in particular by the Laura F. Willes Center for Book of Mormon Studies. With a little bit of funding there we were able to do the seminar live, get together for two weeks in New York City.
This year we were hosted by Union Theological Seminary in New York City, attached to Columbia University.
HODGES: Richard Bushman’s old stomping grounds.
MILLER: That’s right. Richard Bushman’s old stomping grounds. Literally like a block and a half from Richard’s apartment.
HODGES: Nice. Can you give his address and phone number?
MILLER: Yeah, right. We were just next door to the Riverside Temple in New York City. Absolutely beautiful. The Seminary was, they were an excellent host. We had a grand time there.
The Mormon Theology Seminar is a project that organizes short-term collaborative readings of narrow slices of Mormon scripture, and it does this in particular with an eye to the kinds of theological questions that those texts might be able to inform.
HODGES: So it’s like, hey, let’s take this small group of intelligent people, a short excerpt from the scriptures, and ask particular questions of that text and see what happens when we put all our heads together, kind of a thing.
MILLER: Right. Exactly. The one collection of papers from seminars that have been published thus far by the Maxwell Institute, though there are five or six more in the pipe, is the Alma 32 volume, where what you do is you get six to eight people together from a variety of disciplines.
What we did here in New York City was we had eight people altogether, and Joe Spencer and I as the directors of the seminar, and then six other contributors to the seminar. The eight of us met for two weeks at Union Theological Seminary and we spent the first week reading Jacob chapter seven, was our text for this year. The primary content of Jacob chapter seven is where Jacob confronts Sherem about what the doctrine of Christ means and whether it’s good or not in relationship to fulfilling the Law of Moses.
We spent the first week meeting five hours every afternoon going through that chapter verse-by-verse, phrase-by-phrase, word-by-word. Then the second week of the seminar we spent writing and work shopping individual papers that grew out of all that collaborative work from the first week, and then held a conference to conclude the seminar at the end of the two weeks.
HODGES: So people might say, okay, so is it possible to spend a whole week on one excerpt of scripture like that? Like what can possibly be done? You read through it and that’s it.
MILLER: The chapter is twenty-seven verses long. We spent five hours working together in the afternoon, and then everyone’s mornings were spent preparing for the work we would do together in the afternoon. It does sound a little wild. But both this year and last year, last year we did First Nephi chapter one, and we were in London at BYU’s London center last year. I was a little nervous too. This is the first time we’d ever done it live, right? I mean, will these texts hold up to that kind of intense collaborate scrutiny?
HODGES: Yeah, because previously you were doing it through the Internet, right?
MILLER: Yeah, so there was more time and freedom, and all the discussions previously were done online. Much less expensive, but a lot less fun, and in some ways less productive.
But in both cases, both last year with First Nephi chapter one and this year with Jacob chapter seven, we at the end of the week that we spent reading this text together, everyone in the seminar felt like we’d barely scratched the surface and we’d left so many things untouched it was a little embarrassing.
HODGES: That’s kind of, I mean, Grant Hardy is here at the Maxwell Institute this summer doing a small seminar on the Book of Mormon. It’s the same thing. We’re focusing on isolated portions of the text, and the class never ends on time, and it always ends, and maybe it goes a couple of minutes over, but that’s always because the extra minute or two are spent saying, “Oh, we didn’t get to this and this and this.”
So it’s almost like the more attention you pay to it, the more questions can be generated. This is the power of scripture, right? The scripture is generative. Is that a word? Scriptures generate thought. The more you put into it, the more that seems to grow out of it.
MILLER: I think that’s right. I think in addition to the kind of really close reading work that Grant specialized in, the seminar brings to bear this kind of additional questions about how the text responds to kind of contemporary theological questions. You know, it adds an additional, philosophical dimension to the work of reading the scripture to ask, alright, if the text has this and this to say about the doctrine of Christ or the power of the Holy Ghost, it frames the relationship between the doctrine of Christ and the Law of Moses in a certain kind of way, then what kind of implications does that have for us as practicing theologians in the twenty-first century? I think that additional dimension just adds layers and layers of uncompletable work to a project that is already uncompletable.
HODGES: Yeah, so obviously when you do a collaborative seminar like this, it’s limited to a select number of participants. We’ll talk in a minute about how people can apply to become involved in that, but the other thing that the seminar does is put out these books of the proceedings. So people can see what kinds of readings resulted from the seminar, and it can prompt further study, further reflection, further ideas, and as you mentioned, the Maxwell Institute has already published the volume on Alma 32, which you edited.
I know before the end of the year we have two more that are going to come out. The first one is Reading Nephi Reading Isaiah, which is when the seminar focused on Second Nephi, where Nephi is reading Isaiah. Then the second one is Apocalypse: Reading Revelation 21-22. I think Julie Smith edited that one, correct? Then Joseph Spencer and Jenny Webb edited Reading Nephi Reading Isaiah. The Alma 32 book is already available. You can pick that one up on Amazon, and then keep an eye on the Maxwell Institute Facebook, Twitter, and blog for news about when those other two books are coming out before the end of the year.
Adam, let people know quickly how they might be able to get involved in the seminar going forward, because we’re going to try to do this each summer, so what’s the general process for being selected to be part of it?
MILLER: Well at the moment we are tentatively planning to hold the seminar next summer at the beginning of June in Berkeley, California, hosted by the Graduate Theological Union, there in Berkeley. The text that we’re tentatively slated to discuss is Alma chapter thirteen. In the fall, September, October, probably the beginning of October-ish, we will release a call for applications that will invite scholars to apply to participate in that seminar. The deadline will probably be the New Year.
We would love to get a nice mix of people from a variety of disciplines, both within and without the humanities. We’d like to get a nice mix of both men and women. We would like to get a nice mix of both younger scholars, graduate students, freshly minted PhDs, and a nice mix of some more mature scholars, more senior scholars. So in this respect, our summer seminar is different from the Summer Seminars typically run by Terryl Givens or Richard Bushman that are limited to graduate students. We’d like to include some graduate students, but this is a seminar that we’d be happy to also, and has included senior scholars as well.
HODGES: Okay, good. So people can just keep an eye on the Maxwell Institute website, and also the Mormon Theology Seminar has a website. What’s the URL for that?
HODGES: So people can check out that for more information as well.
Adam, thank you so much for being on the show today.
MILLER: My pleasure.
HODGES: That’s Adam Miller. He is a co-director of the Mormon Theology Seminar that is partnered up with the Institute’s Willes Center for Book of Mormon Studies. Adam’s also the author of the new book Grace is Not God’s Backup Plan: An Urgent Paraphrase of Paul’s Letter to the Romans.
The views expressed here and in Maxwell Institute publications are those of the individual authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the Maxwell Institute, Brigham Young University, or The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
“Seek ye diligently and teach one another words of wisdom; yea, seek ye out of the best books words of wisdom; seek learning, even by study and also by faith.” (D&C 88:118)