Reviews of

Benjamin Schliesser, “The Dialectics of Faith and Doubt in Paul”

In Abraham, Benjamin SCHLIESSER, Cambridge, Disputing, Doubt, Faith, Meddling, Paul, Romans, Samuli Siikavirta, SEMINAR REPORTS on October 13, 2011 at 12:21 pm

A report on a paper given by Dr Benjamin Schliesser (Zürich University) at the Senior New Testament Seminar of the Faculty of Divinity, University of Cambridge, 11 October 2011.

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Dr Schliesser’s paper began with the realisation that he had made when writing his PhD thesis: the notion of doubt has not been dealt with much at all in Pauline scholarship. The doubt of Don Quixote, Descartes, Luther and the modern sceptic were all mentioned as examples that shape our present-day definition of the word “doubt”: uncertainty, hesitation, lack of confidence and wavering between two positions.

Most of the paper focused on Romans 4:20 and Paul’s use of διακρίνεσθαι therein. Dr Schliesser carefully showed the discrepancy between the classical/Hellenistic meaning of the verb (“to be separated or to be dissolved [into elements]”, “to come to a decision or to get it decided” or “to contend or to dispute”) and the way in which it is usually read in the New Testament (“to contend with oneself” or simply “to doubt”).

The latter presupposes a semantic shift to have taken place within the NT context, quite independently of the proof we have of the Hellenistic usage of the word (cf. Joachim Jeremias and Friedrich Büchsel).

What Dr Schliesser sought to demonstrate was that this semantic shift has recently been called into question (e.g. by Peter Spitaler), and that it is possible to access the meaning of the verb better by looking at its Wirkungsgeschichte on the one hand and its textual context on the other.

As examples of the former, Schliesser picked up John Chrysostom, John Calvin and Markus Barth. They all build on each other, Schliesser claimed, and they all interpret διακρίνεσθαι not so much as Abraham’s “doubt” as they do as opposition between the human and the divine viewpoint.

Chrysostom writes that Paul “does not say, ‘He did not disbelieve,’ but, Ου͗ διεκρίθη, that is, he did not dither back and forth (ου͗δὲ ἐνεδοίασεν) and he did not (permanently) change his attitude or standpoint (ου͗δὲ  ἀμφέβαλε) though the hindrances were so great.” (Homilies on the Epistle to the Romans 9, PG 60, 461). For Chrysostom, διακρίνεσθαι was a matter of questioning and meddling in divine mysteries instead of accepting them in faith.

Similarly for Calvin, who relied a lot on Chrysostom in his scriptural interpretation, the verb meant to inquire or search into (disquirere) something and examine (excutimus) it through diffidence while being unwilling to admit what appears to be incredible

Markus Barth, in his Swiss Reformed tradition, claims that were Paul to mean doubt as opposed to faith, he would be reading the Abraham narrative completely detached from its original Old Testament meaning. This would not be in line with Paul’s otherwise good exegesis. Therefore, opposition to and resistance of God – being a Besserwisser – describes better what Paul means, Schliesser argued.

To find the answer to the question whether διακρίνεσθαι can be at all labelled as “doubt”, Schliesser went on to look at its antonym in Romans. As opposed to Abraham’s faith lies the Gentiles’ (Rom. 1:18) and Jacob’s (Rom. 11:26; 3:1-8) ungodliness (ἀσέβεια). “In Rom 1:18-32, Paul accuses Gentiles of ‘ungodliness’ (ἀσέβεια) and ‘unrighteousness’ (ἀδικία) (1:18); they show ignorance towards God the creator and his ‘power’ (δύναμις) (1:20); they refuse to give glory to God (ου͗χ… ε͗δόξασαν) (1:21)… By contrast, Abraham believed in the one who makes righteous (δικαιοῦν) the ‘ungodly’ (ἀσεβής) (4:5); he knew that he stands empty-handed before God and that he is dependent on his generative power (δυνατός) (4:21; cf. 4:17); he gave glory to God (δοὺς δόξαν τῷ θεῷ) (4:20)”, Schliesser writes in his handout. Abraham’s faith (Rom. 4:3) and acknowledging of God’s truth (Rom. 3:3) is also contrasted with the “faithlessness” of some Jews and their iniquitous and unrighteous standing before God in Rom. 3:1-8.

An important part of Schliesser’s hypothesis was his “dative of sphere” interpretation that he gave to the phrase τῇ ἀπιστίᾳ in Rom. 4.20. He compared it with Paul’s ”in Christ” language and gave it a salvation-historical meaning “as the signature of the sphere of ungodliness” and disparity. Similarly, Schliesser saw an individual, communal and salvation-historical dimension in Paul’s πίστις Χριστοῦ language.

In his conclusion, Schliesser gave a twofold definition of διακρίνεσθαι. As a Gentile term (Rom. 1:21f., 25), it means for Paul that “Abraham did not in a meddlesome attitude argue (with God, the creator) in unbelief.” As a Jewish term (Rom. 3:2, 4), we can find another nuance in Paul: “Abraham did not in an insolent manner dispute (with God, the judge) in unbelief.” This kind of “doubt” is philologically different from that of Don Quixote, Luther and his Anfechtung or Descartes, yet a theological theme of doubt may be suitable to be attached to the term insofar as it has to do with challenging God and his word or his mysterious power (cf. Luther’s Genesis commentary).

The vibrant discussion that followed revolved, for instance, around the notion of promise broadly taken as God’s word, whether Romans 4:21 supports the translation as “doubt” (cf. Rom. 14), and Paul’s definition of faith as not having to do with one’s inner psychological life but as God’s gift that connotes the sphere of salvation. Lots of smiles were exchanged between the partakers in the discussion – both sympathetic and reserved ones.

Samuli Siikavirta
University of Cambridge

  1. […] Benjamin Schliesser, “The Dialectics of Faith and Doubt in Paul …Oct 13, 2011 … A report on a paper given by Dr Benjamin Schliesser (Zürich University) at the Senior New Testament Seminar of the Faculty of Divinity, … […]

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