Paul’s “Futility” Versus Hegelian Dialectics

Given creation ex nihilo (creation from nothing), one can either recognize with Paul (in Romans 8) and Gregory of Nyssa, Origin, and Maximus, that creation continues toward an eschatological realization of pleroma or fullness in which the nihilo (the chaos, disorder) is reduced and eventually has no place, or one can assume the nothing is part of a cosmic dualism giving rise to fullness (fullness of knowledge or a fullness of salvation). The difference pertains to two readings of Scripture and two modes of ordering reality. Do we read from creation to Christ and understand who Christ is on the basis of creation or do we apprehend creation as being fulfilled or completed through Christ?

Our reading will make a world of difference in how we define sin and evil and how we picture the work of Christ. The Hegelian mistake, in that it sums up the human mistake in giving first place to an immanent frame within creation, is key in regard to the nihilo. Hegel’s dialectic fully articulates Paul’s depiction of the reign of death through the reifying of nothing. Given subjection to this understanding our tendency will be to misread Paul (in the manner of the Western theological tradition?) and to imagine Romans 8 depiction of futility and its defeat pertains simply to sin (a sin reduced to the individual). To put it anachronistically, the world is with Hegel (and by extension the forebears and heirs of Luther) in Paul, while salvation is deliverance from out of this order.

Nonetheless, there is a certain value to be gained in engaging Hegel through Paul. The theological concepts of sin and evil tend either toward reductions to misdeeds and perverse thoughts or toward abstractions of cosmic battle which do not easily translate into the fabric of human experience. Even in our reading of the New Testament we may be so focused on individual transgression that we miss how sin can be definitive, not simply of some experience, but of experience per se as it is filtered to us through our world (so much so that it becomes a mode of reading the Bible). In Marx’s language, we might recognize the failures of the bank robber and even of the banker, but we tend to miss the definitive role of capitalism, which gives us both (bankers and bank robbers). Understood rightly, the nihilo of creation ex nihilo (a key point of departure for understanding God) is not simply an abstraction about the order of creation in relation to God but concerns the “fleshing out” or the overcoming of futility accomplished by Christ. If evil is a privation or a nothing given its opportunity in the manner of creation (i.e. it is without any metaphysical or ontological ground but a parasite on the good), this not only locates sin’s origin in the contingency of creation but its ongoing point of access in human experience as a “counter-force” or absence. Hegel gives full and positive articulation to this understanding.

The point at which Hegel and Paul converge pertains to the psychological or experiential reality of this imagined dualism (nothing and futility as a necessary something) in its constitution of human experience. Both will refer to it as a form of enslavement – even agreeing upon its point of entry in and through human cognition. For Hegel, “we are the activity that thought is.”[1] For Paul, human words and thought are deployed in an attempt to displace God and found an independent realm. Its specific point of entry is futile or deceived thought: “they became futile in their speculations” (1:21). Ματαιόω – is “to present what is vain” or “to deceive.”[2] Though Romans 8:20 (“the creation was subjected to futility”) does not “solve the metaphysical and logical problems raised” by this futility it explains that it has a beginning and end.[3] It arises with finitude and contingency and taken as an end in itself this lie turned them into fools (1:22). But this futility is delimited in those who put on Christ: “the creation itself also will be set free from its slavery to corruption into the freedom of the glory of the children of God” (8:21).

Paul consigns this force to its original contingency as part of the unfolding of creation: “For we know that the whole creation groans and suffers the pains of childbirth together until now” (8:22). The pain of childbirth is no more necessary to the fully formed child than the nihilo is to creation. To assign death, futility, and suffering, to part of the constitution of the finished product is to serve the futility. It is to hollow out reality with the unreality of a lie. Creations purpose fulfilled in Christ consigns this futility to a passage through suffering forgotten or subsumed by the eschatological end point of creation: “For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that is to be revealed to us” (Ro 8:18).

Paul, in an appeal to the Hebrew Scriptures, depicts the advance of futility through empty human speech and its embodiment as a lie incarnate: “THEIR THROAT IS AN OPEN GRAVE, WITH THEIR TONGUES THEY KEEP DECEIVING,” “THE POISON OF ASPS IS UNDER THEIR LIPS”; “WHOSE MOUTH IS FULL OF CURSING AND BITTERNESS” (Ro 3:13–14). Paul describes the phenomenology of the lie as characterizing all forms of humanity (the original contexts of his quotations point to both Jews and Gentiles), originating as part of the universal man (the first Adam in Ro 5) and as definitive of individual human experience (Ro 7). Collective experience, universal experience, individual experience, which is inclusive of human religiosity, human sexuality, and human ethics, all fall under this futility – the exchange of the truth for a lie (Ro 1:21-23).

Hegel (and I presume Hegel is indeed the master thinker – truly summing up the alternative to Paul and the New Testament) gives primacy to human knowing (it is the true creation or outworking of spirit) while Paul presumes that this incarnate lie is an enslaving power and is not part of a creative dialectic. For Hegel enslavement necessarily precedes freedom; slave/master, nothing/something, evil/good are the terms of truth and freedom but also the substance of experience. For Paul, this presumed dualism and its defeat explains his form of dialectic in Romans 7 and Romans 9-11. There is for the individual, the law of the mind and the law of the body constituting the law of sin and death which gives way to the body of Christ (7-8), and there is the corporate experience of Jews and Gentiles fluctuating between disobedience and mercy which results in a Pauline synthesis: “For God has shut up all in disobedience so that He may show mercy to all” (11:32). This is not a dialectic between nothing and something but a false dialectic of the lie and disobedience defeated individually, corporately, and cosmically. The lie (disobedience, misorientation to death and the law) is countered by the truth or by the Word (the final Word of creation, the completion or fullness of creation).

The opening to Romans 6 points to sin as the slaveholder but it also indicates the perversity of the Hegelian notion that maintains the necessity of this enslavement for freedom (Ro 6:1). Even those who recognize “sin reigned in death” (5:21), are in danger of positing a dialectic between sin and grace: “Are we to continue in sin so that grace may increase?” (6:1). In both Paul and Hegel the dialectic of sin is definitive of human experience. For Hegel, perhaps the archetypical sort of Christian perverter of the Gospel Paul has in mind, the dialectic of sin is normative for Christian thought. Paul recognizes dialectic is liable to be carried over into Christian understanding at key points in 6-7. “Shall we sin because we are not under law but under grace?” This is to allow sin to “be master over you” (6:14-15). For Hegel this explains why history is necessarily a “slaughter bench” while for Paul the violence of history definitive of human activity (3:9-18) is a futility overcome in Christ.

Paul’s description of how the dialectic arises through an orientation to the law gives rise to his pithiest dialectic formula: “Is the Law sin?” (7:7). He seems to have recognized the danger of pitting grace against law, such that the law itself is perceived as the problem (perhaps a succinct formula for the Protestant dilemma). But of course, it is not that law is the problem but sin coopts even the law of God. It is not simply that the Jewish law, due to this lie, reduces to the law of sin but all human religious and ethical striving – even the best, even that built upon God’s law, is sin possessed. Thus, Paul concludes that all are unrighteousness and all are misoriented to the law. In the progressive argument of Romans there is a flattening out of all law to the law of sin and death.

The difficulty, where sin and evil are pervasive, is to be able to name this thing – to name and recognize the idol (the ideology, the politic, the value system, or even the theology by which Paul is read) by which we measure and experience. Paul does not presume to have a place from which to begin to describe sin apart from the Gospel. The law provides an opening to sin and serves as a point of revelation only in conjunction with the Gospel. Romans opens with the good news (a proclamation of everything being made right) and part of this news concerns the universal reign of sin and death. God’s saving power (1:16-17) to redeem all of creation (8:19-23) simultaneously reveals that the world spirit is not God but the enemy defeated by Christ.

In David Bentley Hart’s depiction, for Paul we are living in the midst of transition between two worlds: “we are living in the final days of one world-age that is rapidly passing and awaiting the dawn of another that will differ from it radically in every dimension: heavenly and terrestrial, spiritual and physical.” This is a story of “invasion, conquest, spoliation, and triumph” in which “nothing less than the cosmos is at stake.”[4] The world has been made subject to death in and through some form of malign governance (“angelic” or “demonic”). These archons, or what Paul calls Thrones, Powers and Dominions, divide us off from God. Whether arising from a sub-personal or demonic realm, Christ exposed these powers and this exposure is part of their defeat. Given that evil’s modus operandi is a lie, exposure is the beginning of defeat.

Indicators that we have to do with a deadly lie, with philosophy gone bad, with corrupt powers of state, is that sin’s defeat is through life giving truth; it has to do with the transformation of the mind enabling a capacity to know and do God’s will (12:1-2), which is integrated with and gained in new forms of human community (12-15). The futility of the nihilo is displaced with hope (5:1-5; 8:24), peace displaces bloodshed (5:1; 14:17; 15:13), and joy and love displace despair and condemnation (8:1ff; 15:13). While this describes a radical alteration of human experience it is a difference grounded in an alternative reality and alternative world.

The resurrection is the opening and summing up of this world as it defeats and exposes the reign of death which saturates this world order. Cosmic and individual enslavement is a servitude to death definitive of sin and Christ’s death and resurrection dethrone death so that his followers can now face down the powers. The death dealing power can no longer separate from God.  “Will tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword” or being “slaughtered as sheep” separate from the love of Christ? (8:35-36). There is a confrontation that continues between Jesus followers and the principalities and powers, but Jesus Christ, “He who died, yes, rather who was raised” has determined the outcome of this confrontation (8:34). “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other created thing, will be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Ro 8:38-39).

To miss this vision would seem to endanger the opportunity to “crush Satan under your feet” (16:20) and to instead give way in the conflict and be overcome by “deceitful men” who may pose as slaves of Christ. Paul warns, “such men are slaves, not of our Lord Christ but of their own appetites; and by their smooth and flattering speech they deceive the hearts of the unsuspecting” (16:18). These deceivers appear to be turning once again to a preference for human speech over God’s Word. How many have been drawn in by their “flattering speech” which would diminish sin and smooth it over through human speech or dialectic?

In summary, sin entered through the opening of nihilo and is accentuated and spread out through human futility. Death, the ultimate futility, entered through Adam and continues to reign through the offspring of Adam, who are its helpless victims. Sin is not a force to simply be forgiven, placated, or satisfied. It is not a force that God can overlook and it is certainly not a force humans can pass over. It is a beast before which one kneels (in the form of nations and kings), a value system by which one gauges all achievement (mammon), and an all-consuming impetus giving rise to human thought and action. It is a mode of thought passed on in this worlds wisdom and it constitutes a philosophical tradition (Colossians 2:8). It is a principal or power that is either served or defeated.

The question is if a Gospel focused on imputed righteousness (a dialectic between law and grace), penal substitution (a dialectic that presumes suffering and death accomplish God’s will through Christ), deliverance from an eternal torturous existence (a dialectic which gives primacy to futility), has anything left of the Gospel in it. In David Bentley Hart’s estimate such a gospel, may have terms “reminiscent” of those used by Paul, “at least as filtered through certain conventional translations”; but “it is a fantasy” to imagine it coincides with Paul’s Gospel. He concludes, “that a certain long history of misreadings of the Letter to the Romans . . . has created an impression of his theological concerns so entirely alien to the conceptual world he inhabited that the real Paul occupies scarcely any place at all in Christian memory.”[5] A recovery of the Gospel, lost as it has become in misreadings of Romans, will of necessity have to begin again with reading Romans.

The notion that sin primarily has to do with guilt and forgiveness or with personal deliverance or private spiritual blessing through a violent sacrifice is not simply inadequate but would seem to be part of the deception. It is deceived in its diminished depiction of sin and in its failure to realize the scope of salvation.


[1] https://scholars.unh.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1018&context=phil_facpub 105

[2] Bauernfeind, O. (1964–). μάταιος, ματαιότης, ματαιόω, μάτην, ματαιολογία, ματαιολόγος. G. Kittel, G. W. Bromiley, & G. Friedrich (Eds.), Theological dictionary of the New Testament (electronic ed., Vol. 4, p. 523). Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans

[3] Bauernfeind, O. (1964–). μάταιος, ματαιότης, ματαιόω, μάτην, ματαιολογία, ματαιολόγος. G. Kittel, G. W. Bromiley, & G. Friedrich (Eds.), Theological dictionary of the New Testament (electronic ed., Vol. 4, p. 523). Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.

[4] David Bentley Hart, Theological Territories, p. 373, University of Notre Dame Press. Kindle Edition.

[5]Hart, p. 371-372.

Two Opposed Depictions of Paul and Two Opposed Christianities

The story of Paul’s conversion is often described as arising from an introspective conscience in which he recognizes God’s righteousness, the heavy requirement of the law, and his incapacity to keep the law, which gives rise to his sense of wrong and his guilty conscience. He meets Christ and understands that deliverance is now provided from the requirement of the law, as Christ has met the requirements, paid the penalty, and grace is now available in place of wrath and punishment. In other words, the story of Paul’s conversion is like Luther’s – or more accurately Luther’s conversion and theology become the lens for a revisionist understanding of Paul’s conversion. It is necessary to narrate his story in this way (knowing God, the law, one’s incapacity) as it is a link in notions of judgment and justification which depend on universal access to basic knowledge of God (through nature or as a Jew) and the law (the law written on the heart or given to Moses) as the basis for condemnation and release in Christ. Realization of law and guilt serves as an unchanging universal foundation in this understanding, in which incapacity of will is the problem resolved in Christ.

Contrary to this typical depiction, Paul narrates his pre-Christian understanding as guilt free and “without fault” in regard to the law. As he describes it in Philippians, he considered himself righteous, zealous beyond his peers, and bearing the highest qualifications and impeccable credentials: “circumcised the eighth day, of the nation of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the Law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to the righteousness which is in the Law, found blameless” (Php 3:5–6). No introspective guilt-stricken conscience here. No notion of a failed works righteousness makes its appearance. In fact, even the notion of an individually conditioned salvation is missing – Paul’s Jewishness, his descent from Benjamin, his thorough Hebrewishness (presumably linguistic and pertaining to family practice) are not things he achieved. These are not earned merits in which he exercised or failed to exercise his will but are corporate ethnic markers beyond his control. His break from his Jewish notion of salvation is not because he felt it inadequate.  It was perfectly adequate, and more than adequate, as he excelled in his pre-Christian self-understanding.

Paul depicts a radical break with his former knowing and his former identity: “But whatever things were gain to me, those things I have counted as loss for the sake of Christ. More than that, I count all things to be loss in view of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them but rubbish so that I may gain Christ” (Php 3:7–8). There is no continuum of knowing, no building on the law of the heart, no guilt and relief. Paul is describing an apocalyptic, holistic change in which one world and identity is displaced by another. There is no ethical continuity based on the law leading to a guilty conscience. Paul does not begin from what he knew as a Jew, or his status as a Jew and thus arrive at his understanding of Christ.

Profit and loss are changed up in the economy of salvation as former advantages in attaining righteousness are loss. The previous system is “excremental” or “garbage” in comparison: “I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them but rubbish so that I may gain Christ” (Php 3:8). Whatever he knew previously has been displaced, and not built upon, by knowing Christ. His viewpoint, his knowledge, his ethical understanding, has been turned inside out as the former system, which was to his advantage, he now sees as a disadvantage.

Paul is not describing a progressive realization, a slow conversion, but is juxtaposing two worlds, two ways of knowing, two modes of identity. His former glory is now his shame, and his former sense of his own goodness – his zeal – is evil (the same sort of zeal that killed Christ, the ultimate evil). The very thing he would have counted as part of his basic righteousness, is evil in that it makes him “the chief of sinners” in persecuting the Church. This former knowing was deceived, misplaced, and gave rise to evil. The Jew is at no advantage, and though Paul speaks of the Jew having a knowledge of God it is misguided. You cannot get to the one by clinging to the other; the picture is not one of rightly knowing the law, failing to keep it, feeling guilty, and realizing that Christ accomplishes what one could not.

Far from the usual narrative, Paul is completely positive in his Jewishness, blameless in regards to the law, glorying in his status and accomplishments – all of which describe what he characterizes as “knowing according to the flesh.” The negative evaluation of his former condition only arises in retrospect of having known Christ.  There is no available light (he has even misconstrued Jewish light), no natural knowledge, no sense of wrong, even given the special revelation to Israel, by which Paul might be judged. In his own pre-Christian judgment, he is without external transgression according to which he might be condemned guilty. Paul’s problem is not that he discovered himself guilty and in need of deliverance from God’s wrath. Paul discovers he was completely deceived in regard to his former manner of life.

What is the basis of judgment (if not universal law) and what is the nature of salvation (if not deliverance from the law)? If Paul, by his own description, has ascended to the Jewish theological heights and judged himself flawless in regard to the law and, by the same token, the chief of sinners, it turns out the human condition is much worse than commonly reported. One can be evil in good conscience and precisely by means of a zealously clear conscience. Religion, law, Temple, sacrifice, even of a kind prescribed by God, can be so misconstrued so as to promote evil. And ultimately this is what is at stake in the two ways of narrating Paul’s story and the theologies surrounding those divergent versions.

The very meaning of good and evil is at stake in the two main versions of Christianity. In contractual theology, evangelicalism, and the main stream of Roman Catholicism, there is a naturally given recognition of good and evil. One has light available through law, ethics, conscience, and nature. There is a natural understanding of God (as the singular creator who is omnipotent and omniscient), a given notion of law, and the universal recognition of an incapacity to keep the law. Christ does not displace an already realized understanding but provides relief for this recognized incapacity and guilt.

On the other hand, in an apocalyptic understanding cosmic re-creation through resurrection founds a new form of humanity on a different foundation. The failure of humanity in the first Adam is total: it has cosmic consequences in the reign of death, the law of sin and death, and the subjection of creation to futility. The specific nature of this futility (the root meaning of the word) is that a lie reigns in place of the truth. The truth of Christ is not additional information to what has already been received, but the counter to the lie, an overcoming of the prevailing darkness, and a defeat of the reign of death. The difference between the two comes down to the most basic question: is it the case that what is taken to be good is actually evil (a total incapacity of discernment) or is it simply that good and evil are known quantities and the problem is in the will?

There is no part of the interpretive frame which is not affected by and which feeds into these two understandings (as I have shown here it pertains to every key doctrine). But the point of division is centered on Romans 1:18-32 which can be read as a universal, ongoing condition, or as a reference to Genesis and Exodus which pertains universally. Is Paul telling us how history continues to repeat itself for everyone or is he describing biblical history as it has impacted all people? Do all people know God, realize his basic nature, understand his ethical requirements, and reject him for idolatrous religion – all the time recognizing their incapacity and guilt? Or has the past rejection of God, who was known because he walked in the Garden, revealed himself audibly, manifested himself in various theophanies, and was rejected by the first couple and their progeny (Cain, Lamech, the Generation of Noah, the Babelites, the Jews at Sinai, all of whom knew God or knew of him because of direct, special revelation) impacted subsequent history? The difference between the two readings already depends upon the theology which flows from each. If humans are individualistic, rational, and in possession of the basic truth about God and ethics, then Paul cannot be thought to be describing a corporate condition of history in which the early reception and rejection of God has created ignorance of his existence. On the other hand, if sin is corporate, being found in Adam means that there is a generational accumulation compounding the problem.

Paul’s characteristic way of describing Gentiles is, in fact, as those “who do not know God” (e.g., 1 Thess 1:9; 2 Thess 2:8; Gal. 4:8-9; I Cor. 1:21). He engages what little knowledge of God he finds on the Areopagus (the height of Greek philosophical learning) by proclaiming to them the God which, by their own acknowledgement, is “unknown.” God is unknown because people “were slaves to those which by nature are no gods.” They “have come to know God, or rather to be known by God” (Ga 4:8–9), not because they have applied themselves to their philosophical and natural studies, but because they have been delivered from slavery to the law of sin and death. Paul depicts human wisdom as no help in knowing God, and perhaps is precisely the obstacle to such knowledge: “the world through its wisdom did not come to know God” (1 Co 1:21) and on the basis of this same wisdom judges the true revelation and deliverance to be foolishness (I Cor. 1:23). This deliverance is not conditioned on their knowing, but as Paul points out, on God first knowing them. The shift is from belief in what is not God, but a dead inanimate object, to the living God (I Thess. 1:9). The passage is from out of a Satanic deception to truth (2 Thess 2:8) and is not passage from a frustrated incapacity of the will.

Romans 7, Paul’s depiction of his own, Adam’s, and every human’s interior predicament, is sometimes taken to be Paul’s depiction of his guilty conscience, but this passage is Paul’s retrospective insight. The law (the prohibition in Eden or the Mosaic law), through the deception of sin, becomes another law (a different law – 7:23), but this law is not available to the understanding or conscience (7:15). It is only as a Christian that Paul can look back on his former life and realize the Mosaic law, like the prohibition in Eden, becomes twisted by sin’s deceit: “this commandment, which was to result in life, proved to result in death for me” (Ro 7:10). The prohibition and the Mosaic law, in reception and practice, become the law of sin and death as life is thought to reside in the law and true knowledge (God-like) is thought to reside in the law. This is not the truth but the lie, which justification theory or contractual theology, seems to continue to promote.

 Paul depicts the work of Christ, and particularly the resurrection, as deliverance from the law of sin and death, which is not God’s law but the deceived human orientation to the law. The shift is more radical and all-inclusive than we might have imagined as these two laws, two ways of knowing, and two worlds do not intersect. One is either found in Adam or in Christ, and to be found in the first is not an aid but the obstacle overcome in the second. Paul’s picture is that Adam instituted the age in which sin and death rule and Christ is inaugurating a new age. 

To die to sin is to break the rule and power of sin and to enter into the reign of Christ. Baptism (dying to sin) is a participation in the death and resurrection of Christ in which there is a fusion with Christ through the Spirit which involves one in a different communion, community, identity, and culture (Rom. 6). Christ’s Kingdom is overcoming and defeating all the dominions and powers of this world and the latter is not preparation for but that which is annihilated by the former (I Cor. 15:24). Paul’s former manner of life was not a propaedeutic to his faith but a deceived “fleshly confidence” – garbage to be disposed of.