Review of Adam S. Miller, Grace Is Not God’s Backup Plan: An Urgent Paraphrase of Paul’s Letter to the Romans (2015).
When I heard about Adam’s new book, I was excited. The length and structure sounded like Paul’s letter to the Romans meets Letters to a Young Mormon. It was only after I began reading it on my flight home from Washington, D.C. that I realized the book was literally a paraphrase of Romans. For whatever reason, I had expected (hoped for?) a brief commentary on Romans. But this was instead a kind of translation (in both the literal and Joseph Smithian sense of the word). My heart sank. On top of this, red flags began to go off in the historical criticism-loving portion of my brain when I read, “But Paul’s work is too important, his good news too urgent, to leave so much of him locked in the first century” (pg. 2, italics mine). My first thought was, “Don’t do it, Adam. Don’t Frenchify Paul.” Paul, I was convinced, should be locked into a 1st-century context because that is the only way we will determine what he is actually saying and thus know what to actually apply in our day and age. While I’m more than fine with creating theology based on a text without being necessarily constrained by the hermeneutics of historical criticism, I’m very uncomfortable with the blurring of those lines.
This was not going well. My gut-feeling was telling me this was going to be train wreck and I had barely made it past the introduction. Furthermore, I was mortified by this possibility because (1) I typically love Adam’s writing and to not love this would be a major disappointment and (2) he had given me a copy to review. Talk about awkward.
Yet, as I delved into his translation/paraphrase, I was captured by the beauty and potentially transformative theology of Adam’s reading of Romans. Adam in a sense redeems Mormonism’s tendency to pit Paul’s views on work and grace against each other. Out of fear of sounding like a caricature of conservative evangelicals and their emphasis on grace, Mormons end up becoming a mirror image of this caricature by deemphasizing it. This Mormon parody of evangelical zeal reminds me of an anecdote told by philosopher Denys Turner:
Some years ago, and in younger, more foolhardy, days, finding myself in a tight spot in a public debate with a philosopher atheist at Bristol University, I made a wager with my audience: I would give anyone present five minutes to explain his or her reasons for atheism and if, after that, I could not guess correctly the Christian denomination in which that person had been brought up, I would buy her a pint of beer. As luck would have it I was not broke at the subsequent revels, though in taking the risk I was backing the mere hunch that most philosophical, principled, not merely casual atheisms are the mirror-images of a theism; that they are recognisable from one another, because atheisms fall roughly into the same categories as the theisms they deny; that they are about as interesting as each other; and that since narrowly Catholic or Methodist or Anglican atheisms are no more absorbing than narrowly Catholic, Methodist or Anglican theisms, they do not exactly amount to an over-rich diet for the theologian.
By basing our theological language, understanding, and hermeneutics on mere contrasts, we undermine our ability to truly read scripture and grasp the message of the gospel. Underlying Paul’s teachings on grace are ancient assumptions regarding kinship, client-patron relationships, Israel’s covenant history, and the values of an honor/shame society. While Adam obviously does not expound on these assumptions, his paraphrase nonetheless captures the spirit of them. In Adam’s hands, the language of grace is no longer that of a necessary gap-filler, but the very core of the gospel message. Or, as Adam writes, “We have to let God be the center of the universe [instead of us]. We have to stop looking at God’s grace from the perspective of sin and, instead, let sin appear in light of grace…As Paul describes it, sin is an active suppression of God’s already obvious glory. It’s a rejection of his already offered grace” (pg. 2-3). Providing the meaning behind the title, Adam writes, “Grace is not God’s backup plan…Grace is not God’s response to sin. Sin is our embarrassed, improvised, rebellious rejection of God’s original grace” (pg. 3-4). Or as one New Testament scholar has explained,
Grace must be met with grace; favor must always give birth to favor; gift must always be met with gratitude. An image that captured this for the ancients was the picture of three goddesses, the three “Graces,” dancing hand in hand in a circle…From [many] ancient witnesses, we learn that there is no such thing as an isolated act of grace…Only a gift requited is a gift well and nobly received. To fail to return favor for favor is, in effect, to break off the dance and destroy the beauty of the gracious act.
By acting “more like a sound engineer than a translator,” Adam has removed a lot of the “background noise…distortion and disrepair” and “remastered” Paul’s message so that it comes through crisp and clear (pg. 6-7). While by no means the end-all-be-all of Romans study or scholarship, it is an incredible resource for one’s personal study; one that keeps the reader’s mind on the big picture of Paul’s message.
Despite my initial skepticism, I will now consult this book everytime I study Romans. And I think every Mormon should as well.
1. Denys Turner, “Apophaticism, Idolatry and the Claims of Reason,” Silence and the Word: Negative Theology and Incarnation, eds. Oliver Davies, Denys Turner (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 14-15.
2. See David A. DeSilva, Honor, Patronage, Kinship & Purity: Unlocking New Testament Culture (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2000).
3. Ibid., 105-106.