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Saturday, November 04, 2017

What Does Your Proof Text Prove? (5)

David Brainerd is a little worked up, asking “Can anyone defend Paul’s misuse of scripture in Romans 3?”

He’s referring to verses 10 through 18, in which Paul strings together a lengthy series of Old Testament quotes in order to demonstrate that both Jews and Greeks alike are under sin.

Mr. Brainerd’s beef is that in their original contexts, none of these verses prove what Paul says they prove. Is he right?

None Who Does Good

He especially dislikes the first quote on Paul’s list, which comes either from Psalm 14 or Psalm 53 (the two are very nearly identical):
“They have all turned aside; together they have become corrupt; there is none who does good, not even one.”
Brainerd complains:
“The Psalm, whether 14 or 53, is NOT saying that nobody ever seeks God. He misuses it as if it’s saying that, when in reality it is saying that ATHEISTS don’t seek God.”
Fair enough to the last point, although I don’t think Paul “misuses” anything. Both Psalms start with “The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God.’ ” David is indeed talking about people who hold an atheistic worldview, or at least people who behave as if God doesn’t exist.

Those Who Eat Up My People

Further, Brainerd’s quite correct in this respect: neither Psalm makes the claim that nobody ever seeks God. That’s evident when we read as far as verse 4:
“Have those who work evil no knowledge, who eat up my people as they eat bread, and do not call upon God?”
These evildoers who claim there is no God “eat up my people”. If God has a people in view that belong to him in the very same Psalm, then surely the Psalmist cannot be claiming nobody seeks after God. And when David (the Psalmist) concludes, he says this:
“Oh, that salvation for Israel would come out of Zion! When God restores the fortunes of his people, let Jacob rejoice, let Israel be glad.”
So in both Psalms 14 and 53, we have wicked people who don’t seek after God, and we have godly Israelites who do, and who belong to him.

On its own, the verse does not appear to prove Paul’s point, does it?

Not Alone

But Paul’s point is not that nobody ever seeks God; his point is that all men are under sin and that Jews are no better off in that respect than Gentiles. And the verse Mr. Brainerd feels is so misused does not stand on its own. It’s part of a lengthy list of quotations from both the Psalms and the Prophets:
  • “Their throat is an open grave; they use their tongues to deceive” comes from Psalm 5:9, where it refers to David’s “enemies”, most probably fellow Israelites, see v10.
  • “The venom of asps is under their lips” comes from Psalm 140:3, where it refers to “violent men” who “surround me”, which would definitely make them Israelites.
  • “Their mouth is full of curses and bitterness” comes from Psalm 10:7, where it could refer to either Israelites or Gentiles who afflict the innocent in Israel.
  • “Their feet are swift to shed blood; in their paths are ruin and misery, and the way of peace they have not known” comes from Isaiah 59:7, where it unquestionably has to do with the sins of Israel and Judah.
  • “There is no fear of God before their eyes” is from Psalm 36:1, where it is a general statement about wicked people.
In fact, most of these verses are cited to demonstrate that Jews too are under sin. Paul has already made the case that Gentiles are under sin in chapters 1 and 2.

All Are Under Sin

What Paul is demonstrating is that the whole tenor of Old Testament teaching is that men are estranged from God and equally “under sin” whether they are under the Law (Jews) or not (Gentiles). Jews are not justified by the Law because every part of their bodies and hearts rebels against the Law of God, as these verses illustrate; while Gentiles, who haven’t got the Law, are not excused by their ignorance because “there is none who does good” and “there is no fear of God before their eyes”.

I agree with Mr. Brainerd that none of these verses in their original contexts conclusively demonstrates that no men at all ever seek God. But proving the apostle misuses the Old Testament requires first understanding what he was trying to prove (Brainerd doesn’t), then further understanding that Paul’s proof of his point is not contained in any individual verse quoted. Rather it is cumulative. When you add it up, there’s nobody that is not covered.

And really, doesn’t your conscience tell you that anyway?

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