Book Review: Adam S. Miller, “Grace Is Not God’s Backup Plan”

MillerAdam S. Miller, Grace Is Not God’s Backup Plan: An Urgent Paraphrase of Paul’s Letter to the Romans (Self-published, 2015). Amazon: $8.99 paperback; $3.99 Kindle.

John Locke, in the preface to his posthumously published paraphrases of Paul’s letters, inveighs against the division of the text into chapters and verses because it hinders comprehension of the text as a unified whole. To understand Paul, Locke says, one ought to read the epistles in a single sitting, again and again, until the big picture begins to coalesce. This advice is the most difficult to implement with Romans, Paul’s longest and most complicated epistle, so a well-done paraphrase offers a way in.

Adam Miller’s new paraphrase sets out to address another obstacle: the difficulty that emerges in the culturally specific details and rhetorical tangles of Paul’s complex argument, which becomes only slightly less difficult when read in the NIV or NRSV than it was in the 400-year-old KJV. Miller, then, aims to “translate” Paul not just into a modern idiom, but into a modern context. Since he considers the message of Romans “urgent,” as his title proclaims, he strives to show the relevance of its argument for 21st century readers.

These efforts at demonstrating relevance appear throughout Miller’s paraphrase on the tactical level, and I’ll discuss some of them in turn, but his major strategic move is to render Paul’s talk of Jews and Gentiles with “insiders” and “outsiders.” I’ll admit to some initial uncertainty about the efficacy of this approach. Romans, likely dating from the late 50s CE, appeared at a time when, due largely to Paul’s missionary efforts with non-Jews, the Jesus movement that had emerged in a Jewish context was undergoing the beginnings of an identity crisis that would, in time, result in a clear break between Christianity and Judaism.

That Paul’s epistle appeared so early in this crisis poses one of the major obstacles to reading it, because readers have to work hard not to impose either the fact or inevitability of that final break on the text. Romans, in context, is about showing Gentiles how to be good Jews without having to conform to certain external markers of Jewishness (the text uses circumcision as a metonymy for these), and then, having learned this, how to live in community with Jews who do conform to these markers. Chapters 1-8 make the first part of this argument, chapters 9-11 explain how Gentiles fit into God’s overall plan for Israel as his chosen people, and chapters 12-15 teach Gentiles how to be good citizens, in both their Jewish and Roman communities.

Given these particularities, “insiders” and “outsiders” present the difficulty of not making clear with whom readers are to identify—especially in the highly fraught chapters 9-12, whose contextual specificity impelled Miller in one place to leave his translation behind and speak forthrightly of “Israel.” I submit, however, that this apparent problem is actually the key to Miller’s establishing the modern relevance of Romans. Paul addressed his epistle to the Gentiles, and, in the wake of the final split, most of its readers have probably felt most comfortable identifying with the Gentiles—not least because Paul’s quasi-polemical treatment of Judaism as unduly legalistic makes such an identification unappealing, while tapping into the ugly anti-Semitism that emerged post-split.

In practice, though, Christians have long since been more like Paul’s Jews than his Gentiles, at least in the West. Christians have become the consummate insiders (could the US even elect a non-Christian president?), and this insider status brings with it all kinds of legalistic boundary-policing (does a shoulder-baring sundress make a girl a bad Mormon?). Miller’s achievement is to help us see ourselves in the epistle’s Jews: in need of a perspective reoriented by and toward grace. Thus read, Romans militates against the up-by-the-bootstraps Pelagianism that informs so much Mormon discourse (we speak, for instance, of “applying the Atonement,” as though the only way out of our inability to do the right thing were by doing the most right thing of all) and that paves a short road to all manner of quiet desperation. The “urgent” in Miller’s title reads like self-serving hyperbole, and yet the message of grace (“not God’s backup plan”) is in fact urgent.

It’s important to recognize that this achievement means that Miller is reading somewhat against the grain of the epistle: his is what Harold Bloom would call a “strong misreading.” The paraphrase has moments that will stand out to readers of Miller’s other books as slight impositions of his Zen-inflected Mormonism. For instance, his rendering of Romans 8:5 resonates with the theme of attentiveness that colors so much of his work:

Those who pay attention to the flesh are mastered by flesh. But those who pay attention to the Spirit are mastered by Spirit.

Another case comes in 12:6-8, where Miller (without apparent basis in the text) lists doubt among the spiritual gifts, and Miller furthermore admits in his preface to taking liberties with the opening of chapter 13. Such instances raise chicken-and-egg questions about whether Miller is imposing his perspective on Romans, or whether deep engagement with Romans (he has, after all, been working with Paul’s writings for a long time) has simply shaped the way that he thinks. The likely answer is that it’s some of both.

If such ambiguity might raise eyebrows among those who (quite reasonably) wish the scriptures to serve as a stable resource for working out spiritual meaning, Miller’s paraphrase simply records on paper (or in pixels) what the rest of us do in practice, which is (following Nephi) to liken the scriptures to ourselves. As with Nephi, this inevitably involves some wrenching of the text from its ancient context to serve our present one: Miller’s version of the scathing conclusion to chapter 1 mitigates the ways that the original might offend modern sensibilities, but does so in order to offend against those sensibilities in a way that, to me at least, goes nearer the heart of what ails us. Miller would even say, I suspect, that the all-pervasive grace of God frees us from slavishness to the letter of the text, and the perfection (or otherwise) of our paraphrases is beside the point, so long as the practice of paraphrasing sends our roots deeper into loving God and neighbor.

Working out these pragmatic translations formally, as Miller has done, can force a kind of careful attention to the text that might not occur without our taking the effort to write it all out. I believe that this practice can lead us into fruitful dialogue with the scriptures, provided that we keep moving back and forth between text and paraphrase, thus allowing the text to resist and challenge the meanings we want to find in it. Miller hopes that his paraphrase will help readers to understand Romans better—and I believe that it will—but he concludes his preface by encouraging readers to go revisit the epistle itself. Its message is just as urgent as Miller says, and I hope that his paraphrase will prompt a richer engagement with Paul’s capstone epistle—and perhaps further paraphrases of our own as we begin, belatedly, to absorb its argument.

Comments

  1. Really excellent review. I definitely need to read this.

  2. I read through it on a plane ride today and thought it was wonderful. Plainspoken but not simplistic. Would probably drive Paul nuts, but that’s a good thing.

  3. Excellent review. I’d certainly take issue with casually throwing in doubt as a spiritual gift, though I leave open the possibility that with the right definition and contextualization, it could be justified. (I can’t quite imagine what those might be, but leave it open.)
    But as this is apparently a loose translation (without explanatory notes?), I would hope that no one authoritatively reads that expansive paraphrase back into Paul.

  4. Jason K. says:

    I think it’s meant to be provocative, and I’m fine with that, so long as people take Adam’s advice and go back to the text after reading the paraphrase.

  5. Angela C says:

    Jason – thanks for this. I’m only into the second chapter, but I appreciate your better informed opinion. I also appreciated Adam’s admonition to use his book as a springboard to rekindle our own interest in re-reading Paul.

  6. I am glad for the push back towards reclaiming Paul and grace. We’ve had “theological cooties” for too long.

    “One can fully appreciate why the Latter-day Saints would develop an attitude toward all others of “us versus them” and begin to erect a doctrinal fortress to protect themselves from any invading theological forces. Indeed, it seems that Mormons began to focus more and more upon their distinctions, those doctrinal matters that were either slightly or greatly different from Protestant and
    Catholic teachings.

    This kind of doctrinal dialectic continued well into the twentieth century. Let me illustrate with a personal example. Just before leaving for a mission, I found myself reading and thinking about the gospel with a bit of trepidation. After spending several days browsing through some of the great doctrinal chapters in the Book of Mormon, I approached my father with a question. (I need to add at this point that my father had grown up in Louisiana as a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, taught seminary to the youth for many years, and knew the principles and doctrines of the gospel well.) I asked, “Dad, what does it mean to be saved by grace?” He stared at me for a moment and then said firmly, “We don’t believe in that!” I responded with, “We don’t believe in it? Why not?” He promptly added, “Because the Baptists do!”

    My father’s statement speaks volumes. We had grown up in the Bible Belt, where we were surrounded by many noble and dedicated Christians who loved the Lord and had given their hearts to him.Over the years, we had watched scores of revivals on television and spent hours listening to radio broadcasts in which the pastor had affirmed that salvation comes “by grace alone.” Knowing as he did that Latter-day Saints believed in the necessity of good works, my father had simply put the matter to rest by stating that we believed something very different.”

    -Robert L. Millet, “Joseph Smith’s Christology: After Two hundred Years”

  7. I don’t think it is quite fair to speak of “applying the atonement” as a form of disguised Pelagianism. Pelagius himself did not exactly preach the doctrine that is now associated with his name either, but that is another story. Pelagianism as it is commonly understood today is the idea that one can be saved by his or her own efforts, i.e. without atonement.

    It is not quite fair to associate every form of synergism, i.e. salvation by the joint effort of God and man, something common to Arminianism in general, and the Church of Jesus Christ in particular, with the taint applied to Pelagianism by the Calvinists of the world, who are scandalized by the very idea of free will, let alone the suggestion that one actually needs to exercise it to be saved.

  8. Jason K. says:

    You are quite right, Mark, to say that such talk cannot be really Pelagian, and in the end I’m a synergist, too. The funny thing is that when these polemics arise (and I read quite a few of them), I’m usually arguing with them in just the way you articulate. I guess I feel strongly that something about our atonement language has slipped away from the grace that makes everything possible, and in fact I think that the works/grace argument as carried out at least since Luther and Erasmus needs to be fundamentally rethought, but that is really a matter for another time.

  9. I agree that “applying the atonement” is an awkward and sterile locution. I tend to think it would be more appropriate to speak of “participating in the at-one-ment”, but that raises theological questions that most do not want to address.

    “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. 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.” – Rom 12:1-2