Paul and the Cosmic Tyrant: Sin and Emergence Theory

Wesley Hill on Croasmun’s The Emergence of Sin: The Cosmic Tyrant in Romans

A pastor friend in the midst of sermon preparation recently emailed me to complain. He had been reading a critical commentary on one of Paul’s letters, trying to figure out what he would say from the pulpit the following Sunday, and he had run across what he termed “a good example of common New Testament scholar speak.” The commentary, in explicating Paul’s (admittedly slippery) concept of believers’ being “in Christ,” had resorted to an abstract paraphrase: With the phrase “in Christ,” Paul refers to “the space Christians occupy, their location.” I imagined my friend at his desk throwing up his hands in frustration. This interpretive gloss, he lamented, “doesn’t really clarify anything about what Paul is saying.”

Matthew Croasmun. The Emergence of Sin: The Cosmic Tyrant in Romans. New Haven: Yale UP. pp. 296. $74.

Anyone who has tried to write or speak about the apostle Paul can immediately sympathize with the pastor’s predicament. How should one preach—that is, make intelligible and urgent to a room full of modern Western believers—what Paul means by Christians being “in Christ”? And on the way toward doing so, how—more fundamentally—should one go about discerning “what Paul is saying” in his broader theology? In a recent essay, the Pauline scholar John Barclay declared that the goal of interpreting Paul today “is not to parrot Paul but to expose, with Paul, what it means for human life to be transformed by the gospel.” But for those, like my pastor friend and me, who think this is the right goal to aim towards, how can we avoid mere repetition, paraphrase, “parroting” when it comes to interpreting and proclaiming the Pauline good news?

The problem comes into sharper relief when one grapples with the seemingly outdated elements of Paul’s letters, the things which modern readers, even devout ones, find nearly impossible to assimilate with their other convictions about the way the world works. This problem received a famous solution in the work of Rudolf Bultmann, probably the twentieth century’s most accomplished and creative reader of Paul, who argued that Paul’s gospel needs a kind of hermeneutical translation into concepts and categories that people find meaningful now. The goal, argued Bultmann, “lies not in eliminating [the] mythological statements [in Paul] but in interpreting them” (my italics)—which is to say, exploring the question of how they might carry continuing force for contemporary preaching and living, even if their purported “original” meanings lack plausibility for us.


What makes Matthew Croasmun, a lecturer at Yale, an especially promising interpreter of Paul is his determination to grasp this nettle. (It probably doesn’t hurt that he’s also an inner-city pastor with regular preaching responsibilities.) In one of the most innovative and compelling books on Paul to be published in years, The Emergence of Sin: The Cosmic Tyrant in Romans, Croasmun zeroes in on one of Paul’s most puzzling and alienating concepts: his portrayal of sin—or, perhaps better, “Sin”—as a kind of mythic god, a personal force or energy that nefariously thwarts divine purposes and enslaves unsuspecting humans.

The data from Paul’s letters, particularly Romans, are familiar: Sin is said to “exercise dominion” (Romans 5:21; 6:12); Sin “seizes an opportunity” (7:8), revives (7:9), and kills (7:11); Sin acts from within human beings in whom it lives (7:17, 20). And the efforts to salvage this mythological picture for modern faith and theology are equally well known. Bultmann, for his part, while admitting that “Paul may indeed speak in naïve mythology of the battle of the spirit powers against Christ,” was sure that Paul “is thereby only expressing a certain understanding of [human] existence: The spirit powers represent the reality into which man is placed as one full of conflicts and struggle, a reality which threatens and tempts.” In this way, Bultmann attempted to explain how modern readers may go on taking their cues from Paul’s theology, though they cannot share Paul’s literal understanding of some kind of invisible cosmic overlord.

But according to Croasmun, who shares with Bultmann a keen awareness of his own historical location and the need for Paul to be heard afresh in our time, the world we moderns inhabit has been “re-mythologized at the hands of chemists, evolutionary biologists, sociologists, anthropologists, and entomologists.” What he means is that there are more forces—from subatomic to intergalactic and at every level in between—at work in the world than ostensibly modern scientific models can account for.

Displaying a dizzyingly wide grasp of current iterations of the concept of “emergence” in various sciences and philosophies, Croasmun devotes much of his book to unpacking his claim that our postmodern world is teeming once again with mythic powers whose dimensions we are just beginning to fathom. (Neil Gaiman’s American Gods comes to mind: just when you think the long-discarded deities are safely buried, they turn out to have some life left in them yet—even in grim, twenty-first-century American landscapes.) “Emergence,” as used in science and critical theory, proposes that complex systems have traits and powers—what we might call a “life of their own”—but also that those traits and powers belong to those systems because of the traits and powers that exist at a “lower” or simpler level of being. To take one of the simpler illustrations Croasmun offers:

Certain blue bird feathers, as it turns out, are not colored with pigments, but rather through constructive interference patterns of light scattering off of intricate nano-structures on the feathers. The blue color, then, is an emergent property of the structure of the feather and the light in its environment.

In “emergence” theories—or, for short, “emergentism” (as this multi-disciplinary approach is often called)—an abstract idea or entity like the “blueness” of feathers may truly exist in the world and yet not be reducible to any one of the parts on which it depends for its existence. “Blueness” is a property of a “structured whole … and can be invoked only when talking about [that] structured whole.” Blueness “emerges” from feathers and light.

Structured wholes, however, or “emergent” realities, having “arisen irreducibly from their supervenience bases, … [may] then exert downward causation on their supervenience bases.” Complex systems that are consequent—or “supervene”—on simpler bases may turn back, as it were, on those bases and wield influence over them. It’s hard to see how “blueness” might do this, but consider another example Croasmun offers, that of the brain and the mind. As Croasmun’s dissertation director, Dale Martin, writes:

The mind is more than a simple sum of the cells that make up the brain. The mind is what happens when all those cells, along with the rest of the body, which processes sensation and information data in innumerable ways, function to produce thoughts, emotions, desires, or meaning. And the mind can work by “downward causation” to alter even the material structure of the brain. Therefore, we may think of the mind (or the soul, if one prefers) as having its own ontological existence that cannot be simply collapsed into the material cells of the brain. But we would still need to insist that the mind does not, at least for now and as far as we can tell, exist independently of the brain or body. The mind, or soul, is an emergent property—one could say an emergent ontological system—that arises from the material functioning of brain and body.

Anyone who was awakened from their digital slumbers by a book like Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows will immediately recognize their own experience in what Martin summarizes here: We may choose how many hours we spend on our smartphones, but before long, our neural circuitry has been rewired—quite literally—by our mind’s obsessions. This is one of the realities that “emergence” seeks to describe.

Theories of “emergence” may also help decode certain societal dynamics—tenacious, seemingly impervious cultures of misogyny, for example—that resist more reductive explanations. Turning from biology and chemistry to sociology, Croasmun cites racism as an instance of this more disquieting dimension of emergentism:

There is a bi-directional, causal relationship between racialized actors (racist or otherwise) and racialized social systems. The systems supervene on the individuals, and at the same time, the individuals are constrained by the systems, so much so that they are said to be constituted as racialized actors precisely because of the constraint exerted by these same racialized structures. This is the emergence relationship that is thought to exist between the psychological and sociological levels. We are quite familiar with the half of this relationship that reductionism would have us imagine: that is, the psychological explaining the social. This is the baseline explanation of racism against which [a critical theorist like Eduardo] Bonilla-Silva is arguing: racists give rise to racism. Rather, he would have us see the other side of the feedback loop: racialized systems give rise to racialized actors with racialized ideology (racism).

On such a picture of the world, an individual human being is “a node in a network of multiple scales,” and not in a healthy way. We are, in an entirely “real” way, trapped by the ideological overlord we helped to create.


Returning to Paul and the problem of personified sin—or “s/Sin,” as Croasmun often writes, to try to get at the elusive way Paul holds together the individual and the cosmic—we find ourselves armed now with these theoretical tools. Croasmun proposes that “we understand Sin as a super-organism with a group mind, emergent from a complex network of human persons and social institutions.” Paul’s letter to the Romans begins, infamously, with a dismal catalog of pagan lawlessness that links gentile bondage to their own idolatrous, rebellious choices (1:18-32). God “gave them up” or “handed them over”—individual sinners, that is—to the consequences of their disobedience. But this picture is paired with what Croasmun calls “the second creation account of Sin in Romans,” in which, several chapters later, Paul writes of Sin that it “came into the world” (5:12), initiating a litany of actions attributed to something that clearly seems “personal”: Sin “increases” (5:20), exercises dominion (5:21; 6:12, 14), and so on. Holding these two stories together is possible when we recognize that individual choices and social configurations can give rise to an emergent entity that subsequently holds individuals in thrall. Sin-as-personal-power, or Sin-as-cosmic-tyrant, is real enough, but real in such a way that it depends upon individuals for its existence—and then, in turn, constrains and coerces those individuals with its own power.

“Who will rescue me from this body of death?” we may exclaim with Paul after following Croasmun this far, and Croasmun does—albeit too briefly and cryptically for me—begin to sketch the contours of what God’s rescue from Sin looks like in Romans. If Sin holds human beings captive, the solution must be for Sin’s grip to be somehow pried open and for human beings to come to be seized by a new, life-giving body. This salvation is “nothing less than the transfer of the self from one cosmic body to another: from the Body of Sin to the Body of Christ, from enslavement to the law of Sin to enslavement to the law of God.” Where Sin exercises its control in the world by iron-fisted fiat, Jesus exposes the hollow cruelty of that reign by his intentionally powerless, glory-less death at the hands of empire. His crucifixion, in all its effeminizing shame, represents, for Croasmun, “a parodic repetition of the dominant ideology’s penetrating-and-impenetrable masculinity.”

The cross, exercising parodic agency against the founding analogies established by Sin, makes Paul’s gospel both potentially shameful and yet also powerful (Rom 1:16). Mimetic obedience of this parodically masculine Christ in baptismal co-crucifixion marks the dissolution of the Body of Sin, and the possibility of new life in the Body of Christ (6:6).

As believers imitate Christ’s self-giving love, in other words, Sin’s tyranny is undone. Sounding at times like a revivalist evangelical, Croasmun’s Paul speaks of this mimetic obedience with the language of personal discipleship. The “lower” reality of the individual believer’s resistance to sinful behaviors can exert “upward causality” on the emergent entity of Sin, weakening its reign in the world. Sounding at other moments like a reforming prophet, Croasmun’s Paul also exhorts us to work for social justice and peace, which “would have have ‘upward-causation effects’ on the mythological entities that emerge from the social structures reformed by such action, and also downward-causation effects on the personal entities embedded within the social structures addressed.” And sounding at yet other moments like a charismatic pastor, Croasmun’s Paul recommends praying for deliverance from demonic oppression. None of these historic practices Paul bequeathed to the church—personal obedience, social reform, and healing prayer—needs to be played off against one another, Croasmun argues, offering his “emergent” reading of Paul as an unlikely but potentially ecumenical framework for realizing Paul’s gospel afresh today.


There is much more to this tantalizing proposal than I can describe here, including a fascinating linkage with first- and twenty-first-century performances of gender and a sort of concluding pastoral postscript (would that more biblical scholarship included such postscripts!). But what stands out most to me is its relevance to the homiletic and hermeneutical problems I began with. What Croasmun has achieved is not so much the translation of a first-century theological concept into a postmodern idiom but rather a way of recognizing that, in some genuine sense, the first-century concept itself is already intelligible in the twenty-first century—albeit in a way the “historical Paul” (himself a construct of our own hermeneutical efforts) wouldn’t have been able to recognize in his time.

The great Russian literary theorist Mikhail Bakhtin describes literary understanding in dialogical terms, in which “the alterity of the text is sought out and acknowledged before the horizon of one’s own expectations.” Shakespeare, for instance, has “grown” in the centuries since he wrote, Bakhtin says, “because of that which actually has been and continues to be found in his works, but which neither he himself nor his contemporaries could consciously perceive and evaluate in the context of the culture of their epoch.” In a similar way, Croasmun has caused Paul to “grow.” Without simply parroting or paraphrasing Paul’s language (“Sin reigns like a tyrant,” as so many recent Pauline interpreters insist, to the puzzlement of modern hearers) or trimming it down to existential size (“Sin-as-tyrant means an individual sense of vulnerability,” as Bultmann’s reading suggests, though it seems to leave out something vital), Croasmun has shown how one can say with a straight face from a postmodern pulpit that sin, in Paul’s fulsome sense, “is as real as haircuts, dollars, opportunities, persons, and centers of gravity.” Sin itself is a sort of person, and that makes as much sense in contemporary scientific terms as it ever did in the god-haunted cosmos of the apostle Paul.

Wesley Hill is an associate professor of New Testament at Trinity School for Ministry in Ambridge, Pennsylvania. He is the author of a number of books including Paul and the Trinity: Persons, Relations, and the Pauline Letters.