Anyone care to join me in a round of the Hallelujah chorus? I’m done with coursework! All that stands between me and my degree is a thesis, and I’ll worry about that tomorrow. For now I should be back to more regular posting, and in the meantime, here’s the final I submitted to my last class, which may be of interest to some readers. The assignment was a five-page position paper summarizing five “non-negotiable” elements of any understanding of Paul’s letter to the Romans. It deals with the usual basics (occasion, structure), plus more significant issues like the nature of the Gospel and the people of God. Enjoy, throw stones, move on to greener pastures, whatever:
Romans is not a piece of systematic theology but a letter, written in a specific situation for specific reasons. Yet neither is it purely occasional, as one of those reasons is to introduce Paul and his gospel to a group of people he has not met. Any summary of the “non-negotiable elements of Romans,” then, must account for both the context and content of the letter, which are intimately bound together. We will pay particular attention to: 1. The immediate context of the letter, including author, audience, occasion and purpose; and 2. The structure and argumentative method, including large-scale contents. This will set the stage for consideration of three of the most important themes in Romans: 3. The role of the law; 4. The relation between Jews and Gentiles in the people of God; and 5. The Gospel of God’s righteousness.
1. Author, Audience, Occasion and Purpose
Romans, of course, was written by Paul (1:1; all stand alone scripture references refer to Romans), the self-described “Apostle to the Gentiles” (1:5; 11:13). It is addressed to the “saints” in Rome (1:7) in anticipation of Paul’s upcoming visit (1:8-15; 15:22-32). Unlike the addressees of his other letters, however, Paul has never been to Rome (1:13; 15:22), so part of the purpose of this letter is to introduce himself, not to those who have never heard of him, but to those who only know him second-hand, and might be prone to misunderstand him (cf. 1:13; 3:1-8; 9:1-3; 15:14-22). He wants to clarify his views and earn their support, not only because he hopes to enjoy ministry in Rome (1:15), but also because he seeks their aid for yet further ministry in Spain (15:24). It may also be that Paul’s ongoing conflict with those who adhere more strictly to the Jewish law (cf. Galatians) has made him fear that his reception in Rome might be less than friendly, especially as he anxiously awaits a trip to Jerusalem (15:25-31; cf. Acts 21-23). For the purpose of that trip is to bring gifts from his Gentile churches that symbolize his hope for Jewish and Gentile unity, so often threatened by controversy over Paul’s view of the law (cf. 15:27; Gal 2:10 in context).
It should come as no surprise, then, that Romans’ presentation of the gospel is everywhere tied to questions of Jewish-Gentile relations and the role of the law, as we shall see. Still, the letter was written to Rome, not Jerusalem, and while its audience plausibly included some Jews (cf. 2:17; 16:7, 11), it was likely predominantly Gentile (1:13; 11:13; 15:14-29). As such, Romans not only addresses Jewish concerns (and cites Jewish scripture), but also alludes distinctively Greco-Roman interests. For instance, Jesus (not Caesar) is “our Lord” (1:4; 4:24), who embodies the “good news” (1:16), “peace” (5:1) and “salvation” (10:10) that the emperors promised. In all ways, however, Romans is not just a defense of Paul’s views, but an invitation to find in his gospel the true answer to humanity’s deepest needs, and it must be asked how he makes this case.
2. The Structure and Argumentative Method of Romans
Though the major section breaks are widely agreed upon (1:18; 5:1; 9:1; 12:1; 15:14; though it seems to me that 6:1 marks a clearer shift than 5:1), the connections between Romans’ various sections have been just as widely disputed. Even if the letter is not tightly structured, however, it is well-integrated. Virtually every section can be tied back to the theme announced in 1:16-17: “I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of all who have faith, the Jew first and the Greek. For in it is revealed a righteousness of God from faith to faith….” So in chapters 1-5, Paul argues that Jews as well as Gentiles have failed to honor God and his law (1:18-3:20), and so all alike must look to Christ for God’s righteousness (3:21-31). In Christ, all can share in the promises made to Abraham (4:1-25), and the universal hope of salvation (5:1-21). In chapters 6-15, Paul responds to potential questions and objections raised by the foregoing: Is grace an excuse to sin (6:1-23)? Is the law sin (7:1-25)? Who can rescue us (8:1-17)? Why do the redeemed suffer (8:18-39)? Have God’s promises to Israel failed (9:1-11:36)? How should we live, without the law (12:1-15:13)? Paul then explains his plans (15:14-33) and closes with greetings, blessings and (perhaps) a warning (16:1-27). Thus, even those sections most often deemed tangential actually address objections raised previously, for instance, 9:1-11:32 answer 3:1-2, while 7:1-25 and 13:8-10 answer 3:31.
This is no mere abstract discussion, however; it is grounded in Paul’s lived experience as Jewish Apostle to the Gentiles, and is marked by a series of overlapping narratives: of humanity’s failure (1:18-3:20), of Abraham’s faith (4:1-25), of Adam and Christ (5:12-21), of Israel’s struggle with the law (7:7-25), of creation’s “frustration” and restoration (8:18-25), of Israel’s stumbling and hope (9:1-11:36), of Paul’s own ministry (15:17-33), etc. All of these are bound up in the grand narrative of God’s righteousness—revealed in creation and covenant, redemption and restoration—and in that story, the law, the people of God, and the good news of Jesus’ redemption stand central.
3. The Role of the Law in Romans
Few issues are as controversial in Pauline studies as role of the Jewish law, and in Romans this theme is especially prominent. So this is one place where context is vital, for tied up in the debate is the nature of 1st C. Judaism as a whole. With the New Perspective I must affirm that Judaism was diverse, but not generally marked by self-righteous legalism, though some (perhaps many) no doubt took their election too-much for granted. Ideally, at least, the average Jew saw obedience to the law as the proper response to God’s goodness and promises. Few, however, thought the world was as it should be, and most anticipated God’s intervention on their behalf, though who or what they blamed and how they pictured God’s response varied greatly. Virtually all saw the law as central to their identity and hope.
For his part, Paul believed that God’s redemption had decisively come in Jesus’ death and resurrection, and this unexpected turn placed the Jewish law in a new light. He agreed that the law specifies God’s (covenant) demands (2:13-29), but insisted that “no one will be declared righteous in [God’s] sight by works of the law” (3:20). Instead, the law was given to reveal sin (3:20; 7:13), but because of “the flesh,” it cannot make anyone righteous (8:3). Indeed, Israel’s reception of the law, which seemed intended to solve the problem of sin, was itself abused by it, so she too fell, like Adam before her (2:17-29; 7:7-24). But Christ did obey perfectly (5:12-21; 8:1-2; cf. 10:4), and those “in Christ” have the Spirit, and so are capable of “fully” meeting “the righteous requirements of the law” (8:4; cf. 13:8-10). Yet it is just this Christological reinterpretation of the law which proved a “stumbling block” to the Jews (9:32-33; 11:9-11; 14:13-18) for, to Paul, it meant that there is no longer any need to maintain the “boundary markers” that divide Jews from Gentiles (3:28-31). Rather, the people of God are defined by faith and identity with Christ, not by ethnicity, ritual purity, food regulations, or adherence to the law generally (2:25-29; 3:27-4:25; 9:1-11:36; 14:1-15:13). Yet if this is so, what then is the proper relation of Jews and Gentiles in the people of God?
4. The People of God: The Relation of Jews and Gentiles in Romans
Arguably, even more central to Paul’s purpose in Romans than the law is the relation between Jews and Gentiles, and here too there is a curious tension at work. Though Paul often affirms the equality of Jews and Gentiles (e.g. 3:9; 4:11-12; 10:11-13), the distinction remains important to him: “The Jew first and the Greek” (1:16); “a man is a Jew if he is one inwardly… by the Spirit” (2:29). The law was given uniquely to Israel (2:12-29), but she too fell (7:7-25) so that “Jews and Gentiles alike are all under sin” (3:9) and must all respond to Christ in faith (3:27-4:25; 10:9-13). Yet ultimately faith marks one’s inclusion in Israel (2:29; 11:17-24) and lack of faith means exclusion, such that “not all who are descended from Israel are Israel” (9:6; cf. 11:23). “Israel” itself remains a valid category, and therefore, while the word “covenant” is not prominent in Romans (appearing only in 9:4 and 11:27), God’s faithfulness to his covenant people is central throughout, now extended to include all who are in Christ.
Paradoxically, then, the very distinguishing marks of Israel (cf. 9:4-5) are also applied to the new people of God, Jews and Gentiles: adoption as children of God (8:14-25), glory (5:2; 8:18), covenant (11:27? cf. 1 Cor 11:25; 2 Cor 3:6; Gal 4:24), the law (8:4; 13:8-10), worship (12:1), promises (4:13-25), patriarchs (4:1-12), and Christ (3:21-31; 5:12-21; 8:1-4). But it is just that equation which poses a problem for Paul: “Did God reject his people [ethnic Israel]?” (11:1). God’s righteousness is called into question (3:3-8) and defended (chs. 9-11) precisely in relation to the fate of Israel: Gentiles are “grafted on” to the olive tree of redeemed Israel (11:17-24), and “all Israel will be saved” (11:26-32). So even now there is “a remnant, chosen by grace” (11:5), the first-fruits of the eventual restoration of all through faith in Christ (11:13-36), and Paul sees his own ministry as part of God’s plan to bring this reconciliation to fruition (15:14-33). But how has God accomplished all this? That is the Gospel—good news—that forms the real heart of this letter.
5. The Gospel of God’s Righteousness
Traditional Protestant theology stresses the individual’s salvation by faith as God’s entirely unmerited forgiveness of sin. While this is certainly an element of Paul’s gospel, however, it should be obvious by now that this falls far short of the cosmic and covenantal scope of both the problem and its solution in Romans. On the one hand, humanity’s “plight” is much more than individual sins; humanity as a whole has failed to honor her creator and has been “given over” in slavery to sin, leading to death (1:18-32; 5:12-14; 6:16-23; 7:14-25), pulling all of creation down with her (8:20). More troubling still, God has called a particular people and given her a law that “was intended to bring life” but even it failed to do so (7:10), for the Jews too fell prey to sin (7:7-25), and this calls God’s own righteousness into question (3:3; 9:6; 11:1). So as we turn to that controversial phrase, “the righteousness of God,” first aired in Romans’ thematic statement (1:17), it seems clear that much more than forgiveness of sins is at stake. A solution is needed to the whole nexus of evil that infects humanity and creation, and the vindication of God’s own justice and covenant faithfulness.
In fact, much of Paul’s purpose in Romans seems to be to explain how these two aspects of God’s righteousness can be reconciled: How can God be both just and faithful, in light of Israel’s sin? By sending his son, who obeyed where Adam and Israel disobeyed, and who died in our place and so reconstituted God’s covenant people “in Christ” (3:24; 6:11, 23; 8:1-2; 12:5), Paul claims that God has indeed proven his righteousness. This all-encompassing “good news,” therefore, includes far more than forgiveness (3:25; 4:7-8) and justification (3:26; 4:5; 5:19) declared of sinners through some sort of legal fiction (though cf. 3:23-24; 5:6-11). Rather, through the Spirit and as part of the redeemed people of God, believers are also made righteous (6:1-23; 8:1-17; 12:1-8), offered “peace with God” (5:1; 8:6; 14:17), “the hope of glory” (5:2; 8:17-25; 15:4, 13), the gift of the Holy Spirit (1:4; 5:5; 8:2-27; 15:13), reconciliation (5:10-11; 11:15), adoption as children of God (8:14-25), conformity to the likeness of Jesus (8:28-29; 12:1-8), and more. Ultimately, this means the vindication and restoration of the covenant people of God, now expanded to include Gentiles as well as Jews (3:21-31; 4:1-25; 11:1-36; 15:7-13), the restoration of the whole cosmos (8:18-25), and hope of resurrection life (4:17-25; 5:17-21; 6:4-11, 22-23; 8:2, 6, 11-25; 11:15). In all this, the one God is truly proven “just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus” (3:26).
In short, Romans introduces Paul, his gospel and its implications to a church from whom he hopes to win support for future mission work, written in the context of significant controversy over the role of the law in light of Christ, and the relation of Jews and Gentiles in the people of God. Through argument and narrative, Paul defends his gospel of God’s saving, restoring and redeeming righteousness, offered to God’s covenant people through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Through participation in Christ, all—Jews and Gentiles—may have a share in the blessings and promises made to Israel, truly fulfilling the law and inaugurating the final restoration of every aspect of God’s creation. “For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be the glory forever! Amen” (11:36).