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Scope: The themes that Paul argued polemically in Galatians are placed in a magisterial argument concerning God’s ways with the world in his letters to the Romans. Everyone agrees that Romans is especially important for understanding Paul’s theology. In contrast to the letters that respond to local problems, Romans presents an orderly exposition of the “good news” proclaimed by the apostle. Paul is basically writing to seek support from the Roman church (with which he has never met) for a future mission to Spain. He takes the occasion to recommend his understanding of the Gospel so that the Romans will provide financial backing for this new venture. In the process, Paul composes a theological masterpiece that more than any other New Testament writing affected the course of theology in the Western church.
I. Romans is universally regarded as the centerpiece in the Pauline collection, and it has had a great influence on theology in the Western church. It is one of the two longest sustained arguments in the New Testament (the other is Hebrews) and is presented in a more systematic fashion than the others letters.
a. Romans, however, was not written as “Scripture” for posterity; like other Pauline letters, it responded to a real-life situation and should be read first in that context.
b. Romans is best read as a letter composed at a turning point in Paul’s career.
i. He has finished his work in the East (15:16-22).
ii. He is on his way to Jerusalem with the collection (15:22-32).
iii. He seeks support from Rome for a mission to Spain (15:24).
iv. He is sending Phoebe as his financial representative to gather such support (16:1-2).
c. As a means of persuasion to assist in his next endeavor, Paul’s self-recommendation (or recommendation of his gospel) naturally develops themes of his recent work in the East, especially Corinth and Galatia.
II. The Romans debate: Why did Paul write to the Romans?
a. Some evidence in the letter suggests real differences between Jewish and gentile Christians in the Roman churches (2:1-3:9; 14:1-23; 16:17-29). On this basis, some scholars propose that Romans should be read as other Pauline letters, as an “occasional” missive intended to correct dissension (see, above all, ch,14).
b. Other scholars recognize that evidence but regard it as typical of diversity within communities rather than the specific problems of the Roman church (which Paul neither founded nor knew personally). They see Paul speaking of diversity in practice (ch.14) as a way of giving practical expression to his understanding of righteousness.
III. The structure of the letter has been variously understood by scholars throughout the ages. Readers in different periods have focused on different parts of the letter.
a. In the Middle Ages, scholastic commentators divided the letter neatly between “doctrine” (chs. 1-11) and “ethics” (chs. 12-16) because they regarded Romans as a form of systematic theology. Romans does not, however, contain all of Paul’s theology. It does not represent a systematic theology of that sort.
b. Such reformers as Martin Luther focused on chapters 1-8, because they contain Paul’s most explicit teaching on justification by faith.
c. Calvin focused on chapters 9-11, because they contain teaching on divine predestination.
d. Calvin was very concerned with the question of eternal predestination of the individual.
e. But Paul is not talking about the fate of the individual. He is discussing the relationship between nations (gentiles and Jews), historically, in working out God’s plan.
f. The contemporary recovery of classical rhetoric has helped scholars see all of Romans as a single rhetorical argument with each section of the letter serving a different function.
i. Romans can be read as a “scholastic diatribe,” which means that it not only has these dialogical stylistic features associated with the diatribe (rhetorical questions, apostrophe, abrupt responses) but also a dialectical mode of argument.
ii. Thus, after the greeting and thanksgiving, Paul states his thesis in 1:16-17 (“…the righteous person will live out of faith”).
iii. He argues this thesis by means of its antithesis in 1:18-3:20, showing how the wrath of God is being revealed among humans by the opposite of faith, namely, sin.
iv. He restates the thesis more fully in 3:21-31, showing how the faith of Jesus that saves humans.
v. He then demonstrates the thesis through the scriptural example of Abraham as the person who models faith in 4:1-25.
vi. He finishes his argument through appeal to experience in 5:1-21, before responding to a series of questions raised by the thesis in 6:1-11:31. Essentially, the question is, “If the gentiles have this good news and Jews are turning away from it, does this mean that God has failed?”
vii. Finally, Paul applies the argument to the moral life of the Roman community as exemplary for every community in 12:1-15:6.
g. The importance of understanding this structure is that it gives us clues as to how to read parts of Romans.
i. People today are obsessed by the fact that Paul seems to condemn homosexuality in Chapter 1. But Paul uses homosexuality merely as an illustration of a larger issue, rather than a considered analysis of an issue.
ii. Likewise, chapter 7 is taken as an indication of Paul’s divided consciousness (he says he wants to obey the law but cannot do what the law says).
iii. When we understand the structure of the diatribe, we see that Paul is exercising the rhetorical device of writing in character.
h. So where is Paul? Paul is in chapter 8, where he says that because we have been empowered by the spirit, we can do what the law asks of us.
i. Context is, therefore, crucial to our understanding of Paul.
i. Thus, chapters 9-11 are not about heaven and hell but about the fundamental issues of whether God plays fair and is faithful to his promises in history.
ii. Paul’s position in the beginning of chapter 9 is far from being anti-Semitic; rather, he basically says that if the Jews are lost, then he wants to be cut off too, because he is a Jew.
iii. He ends by saying that God’s final plan is for all Israel to be saved.
IV. In all the complexity of Paul’s scriptural interpretation, he develops an elegant and powerful argument based in the story of Jesus.
a. The fundamental theological principle Paul argues is that of God’s “impartiality,” or fairness (2:11; 3:22; 11:34-35).
i. For Paul, it is axiomatic that “God is One” (3:27-30).
ii. If God is one and God is “righteous” (in our terms, “plays fair”), then there must be some way for all humans to be righteous (i.e., in right relationship with God, 3:29-31).
b. It is the response of faith (pistis-meaning trust, obedience, and responsiveness) that establishes humans in right relationship, as shown by Abraham’s faith in God even when he was still a gentile (4:1-11).
i. But there is a problem: Human sin has inhibited the possibility of obedient, trusting faith (1:18-3:20).
ii. The Mosaic Law cannot help, because it is only verbal, whereas the power of sin is internal (7:1-25).
c. God has gifted humans with the power to respond with faith through the faithful obedience of God’s son, Jesus (1:16-17; 3:21-26).
i. Jesus’s faithful obedience places humans in right relationship with God (5:12-21).
ii. The power to respond with faith as Jesus did is given by the Holy Spirit (5:1-11; 8:1-39).
d. God’s plan in history is to reconcile Jews and gentiles through the principle of faith (9:1-11:36)
e. Christians can act among themselves with righteousness by transforming their minds (12:1-2) and “putting on the Lord Jesus” (13:14).
i. They demonstrate this transformed mind by the quality of their lives (12:1-21).
ii. Above all, they demonstrate it by the mutual love that respects and welcomes diversity in the community (14:1-15:13)
Essential Reading: Romans
L.T. Johnson, Romans 3:21-26 and the Faith of Jesus.
K. Stendahl, “The Apostle Paul and the Introspective Conscience of the West”, in Paul among Jews and Gentiles, pp. 78-96.
A.J.M. Wedderburn, The Reasons for Romans.
Questions to Consider:
- How does Romans 9-11 throw light on Paul’s attitudes toward his fellow Jews?
- What difference does it make to translate the phrase pistis christou as “faith of Christ” rather than “faith in Christ?”
Next Sunday: Fellowship – Letters from Captivity. Read Philemon, Philippians, Colossians, Ephesians.