The third chapter of Romans is less another contribution to a human culture that imagines its own steady advance than an attempt to bring the entire project to a halt.
A potent barrage of scriptural citations is unloaded on Jew and Gentile alike (Romans 3:9–19). Objectors who think they might have kept God’s exacting standards are immediately shushed, and shown to be forgetful of the law’s purpose (Romans 3:20). To speak in terms of the British Museum’s Law and Gospel woodcut by Lucas Cranach the Elder, only when the heat of this message is experienced, does the unexpected ‘chest-splash’ of relief arrive (Romans 3:23–24).
Protests that Paul’s Romans 3 broadside is inapplicable to modern people stop short of a deep investigation of the human condition. Sociologist Alain Ehrenberg (2010) identifies a recent shift from the axis of the permissible (‘should I do it?’) to the axis of the possible (‘can it be done?’), in which the failure to show ourselves both competent and efficient results less in neurosis than depression. This predicament is equally susceptible to Paul’s diagnosis, for the message of grace over works affords a stop button on the treadmill (frequently literal, for fitness-obsessed moderns) of generating our own self-worth.
Like a good sermon, the Hagia Sophia Deësis mosaic, without losing Cranach’s dichotomy between law (Christ’s left, our right) and gospel (Christ’s right, our left), personally draws the believer into the field of Christ’s just and loving gaze. The two images, Cranach’s Law and Gospel and the Byzantine Deësis, work in tandem in bringing Romans 3, which is both universal and personal at once, to the eyes. This comparison affords a visual corollary to the Finnish interpretation of Luther that has identified compatibilities with Eastern Orthodox theology (Braaten and Jenson 1998), even while it subverts Cranach’s own polemical consignment of the Deësis to the left side of the British Museum panel to signify merely law.
But the law and gospel message of Romans 3 can be read not only backward, but forward in time. Annoyed by those who call the Tate Modern a secular cathedral, Andrew Marr demurs: ‘We should be nervous of the simile between art and religion. … Art may “ask questions”, console and delight, but it rarely presumes to offer new ways to live’ (Morris 2010: 15–16). But these ‘code[s] by which to live’ which Marr believes constitute religion are precisely what Romans 3 attempts to terminate, replacing law with liberty and grace.
As if to highlight the very point, Martin Creed’s Work No. 232, ‘the whole world + the work = the whole world’, is an inescapable proclamation that greets elevator-ascending viewers on level 4 of Tate Modern, London. Beneath the neon words, gallery seating urges visitors to contemplate, perhaps, the transience of the cultural accomplishments that fleetingly occupy the massive turbine hall. Work No. 232 may even remind some viewers of the olive branch extended to Protestant understandings of grace in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, where St Thérèse of Lisieux (1873–97) remarks, ‘In the evening of this life, I shall appear before you with empty hands, for I do not ask you, Lord, to count my works’ (CCC, 542).
If this message is absorbed, Tate visitors are invited to cross the nearby bridge to the same museum’s Blavatnik building. Ascending to the tenth-floor viewing room, another of Creed’s neon messages awaits above the elevator: ‘EVERYTHING IS GOING TO BE ALRIGHT’. Referring to this more positive work, Creed remarks: ‘To me it’s optimistic. But to me it also contains the negative, the opposite’ (Martin Creed 2006). Or as Luther put it, ‘You know that God has sent two kinds of preaching into the world, one of the Law, the other of the Gospel. One must have them both…’ (Pelikan and Lehmann 1955: 199, 200).
Creed leaves interpretation of his work militantly open-ended, but if his message is received as consolation, then visitors can return to the art of the galleries below, experiencing them apart from idolatrous expectations of art’s ultimate value. In the same way, the believer justified by faith is still expected by Paul to gratefully perform good works, but without investing such accomplishments with saving significance (Romans 3:31), for salvation belongs to God alone.
Tate Modern itself would thereby become the largest Cranach panel yet, as public an encapsulation of the message of Romans 3 as the pediment that illustrates St Paul’s blinding conversion apart from works on the Cathedral across the Thames.
Braaten, Carl E., and Robert W. Jenson (eds.). 1998. Union with Christ: The New Finnish Interpretation of Luther (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans)
Catechism of the Catholic Church. 2003. (New York: Doubleday)
Ehrenberg, Alain. 2010. The Weariness of the Self: Diagnosing the History of Depression in the Contemporary Age (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press)
Morris, Frances. 2010. Tate Modern: The Handbook (London: Tate Publishing)
Pelikan, Jaroslav, and Helmut T. Lehmann (eds.). 1955–1986. Luther’s Works, vol. 58 (St Louis: Concordia)
TheEYE: Martin Creed. 2006. (Illuminations media)
9 What then? Are we Jews any better off? No, not at all; for I have already charged that all men, both Jews and Greeks, are under the power of sin, 10as it is written:
“None is righteous, no, not one;
11no one understands, no one seeks for God.
12All have turned aside, together they have gone wrong;
no one does good, not even one.”
13“Their throat is an open grave,
they use their tongues to deceive.”
“The venom of asps is under their lips.”
14“Their mouth is full of curses and bitterness.”
15“Their feet are swift to shed blood,
16in their paths are ruin and misery,
17and the way of peace they do not know.”
18“There is no fear of God before their eyes.”
19 Now we know that whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God. 20For no human being will be justified in his sight by works of the law, since through the law comes knowledge of sin.
21 But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from law, although the law and the prophets bear witness to it, 22the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction; 23since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24they are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus, 25whom God put forward as an expiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins; 26it was to prove at the present time that he himself is righteous and that he justifies him who has faith in Jesus.
27 Then what becomes of our boasting? It is excluded. On what principle? On the principle of works? No, but on the principle of faith. 28For we hold that a man is justified by faith apart from works of law. 29Or is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles also? Yes, of Gentiles also, 30since God is one; and he will justify the circumcised on the ground of their faith and the uncircumcised through their faith. 31Do we then overthrow the law by this faith? By no means! On the contrary, we uphold the law.