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Worship: The Appropriate Response to Concupiscence

March 8th, 2010 | 2 min read

By Matthew Lee Anderson

Francis Watson's Agape, Eros, Gender is a provocative treatment of Paul's views of sexuality and gender.

Watson's analysis is provocative, but uneven.  He is at his best when interacting directly with the Pauline texts, and while I find myself agreeing with him on countless points, his presuppositions hinder me from adopting his position wholeheartedly.  To name one, Watson seems to be channeling the problematic dichotomy between eros and agape that Anders Nygren made famous.  While that allows Watson to read 1 Corinthians 11 in interesting ways, it problematically constrains Watson's theological vision.

But when he treats Romans 7, he is on top of his game.

Romans 7 isn't one of the first places interpreters turn to think through Paul's views of sexuality.  But Watson makes a persuasive case that they should, arguing that the dynamic of the law, the body, and the Spirit are grounded in Paul's attempt to defeat concupiscence.  Watson writes:

According to Romans 7, 'the letter' brought death to the people of Israel because it provoked the very sin it prohibited. The coming of the commandment, 'You shall not desire', aroused every kind of desire for forbidden objects, and sin lead to death.

But the body is the locus of misguided desires, and under the weight of the law is transformed into 'the body of this death.'  Hence Paul can speak about the 'law of sin that is in my members,' where the body's spontaneous desires and impulses need to be subordinated to the regenerative power of the Spirit.  The body isn't neutral--it too is tainted by the stain of sin.

Paul's eruption of praise at the end of the chapter, then, is instructive not simply because of the theological point that Spirit provides freedom from the law of sin.  The Spirit's freedom is a freedom to and through worship.  The answer to concupiscence--what we now call lust--isn't repression or denial.  Instead, it is a heart that bursts forth, "Thanks be to God!"

Two further points, one textual and one constructive.

First, in Romans 12:1-2, the submission of the physical body is an act of worship, tying together worship with overcoming the 'law of sin in my members.'  That Romans is a book about worship is clear enough from it's structure.  That it is about the body has been less discussed, unfortunately, at least within Protestant circles.

Second, lust is a grasping, even in it's look.  It is a refusal to delight in what's been given and a striving for more.  It refuses to respect the boundaries of the sacred.  Worship, on the other hand, is a response of thankfulness to what's been given, and a refusal to take more than what is offered.  Calvin understood this, and so stressed the need for piety in approaching the mysteries of God.

A world where nothing is given, then, and everything has to be taken--Sartre's radical freedom of self-construction--is a world without worship and a world where lust dominates.

Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is an Associate Professor of Ethics and Theology in Baylor University's Honors College. He has a D.Phil. in Christian Ethics from Oxford University, and is a Perpetual Member of Biola University's Torrey Honors College. In 2005, he founded Mere Orthodoxy.