p.ost

(how to tell the biblical story in a way that makes a difference)

What I think Romans is about

I had a very enjoyable and encouraging couple of hours this evening teaching a class on Romans at Chelmsford Cathedral. Much of it was a discussion of the differences between Reformation readings that make justification by faith the organizing centre of the Letter and New Perspective readings that see Romans as Paul’s retelling of the story of Israel. I wasn’t there to present my own view of the text; but to help clarify my thoughts I prepared the following rough summary of how I see the argument in the Letter unfolding. We start with Paul’s only explicit statement of why he has written to the churches in Rome.

Paul wrote his Letter to the Romans because he was under obligation as an apostle to the nations to ensure that the Gentile churches constituted an acceptable “offering” in response to God’s demonstration of mercy towards his people, in accordance with the Old Testament pattern—that they were, therefore, fit to serve divine purpose at a time of eschatological crisis and transition. (15:8-21)

That purpose was ultimately that Israel’s God would judge the idolatrous nations, impartially, according to their works, and rule over them throughout the coming ages; he would judge and rule not directly but through Jesus, whom he had appointed by his resurrection from the dead. (1:1-4; 15:8-12; cf. Acts 17:31)

But God could not judge the nations without first holding his own people accountable, who should have been a light to the blind, etc., but had shown themselves to be as much enslaved to sin as the Gentiles. So wrath against the Greek would be preceded by wrath against the Jew. (1:18-3:20)

This created a fundamental theological dilemma. If Israel faced the wrath of God—that is, destruction—how would God stay true to his promise to Abraham that his descendants would inherit the world? Through the concrete way of radical trust pioneered by Jesus, whose death was an atonement for the sins of Israel. This shift from Law to faith opened the door to the direct participation of Gentiles in God’s purposes. (3:21-4:25)

This whole narrative—from the death of Jesus through to the defeat of pagan empire—would be the means by which the God of Israel, the one true creator God, would demonstrate his righteousness, his rightness, before the eyes of the nations. Those who had faith in this vindication of God would themselves be justified on the day of eschatological transformation.

The way of radical trust, however, was bound to be a way of suffering. Believers had been set free from sin in order to participate actively, with eschatological intent and in the power of the Spirit, in the suffering and vindication of Jesus for the sake of the future life of the people of God. They had the absolute assurance that as they pursued this way of suffering—Jesus’ narrow and difficult path leading to life—nothing would separate them from the love of God. Not least for the churches in Nero’s Rome this would be an inescapable part of what it meant to offer themselves as an acceptable sacrifice. (5-8)

For Paul it was a matter of considerable anguish that Israel had for the most part rejected this way of trust. Did this mean that the word of God had failed? No, because a remnant would escape destruction, along with those Gentiles who had been grafted into the rich root of the patriarchs. But Paul remained hopeful that following judgment Israel as a nation would turn and be saved. Sadly, it didn’t happen. (9-11)

For the Gentile churches to play their part in this painful drama of judgment and restoration, they needed to present themselves as living sacrifices, an offering of the nations to the God of Israel. They were one body, mutually supportive under persecution; they were to love their enemies and not seek to avenge themselves; they should not provoke the governing authorities; they should be spiritually prepared for the coming day of persecution; and the strong in faith (Gentiles) should support the weak (Jews). (12-14)

Image of The Future of the People of God: Reading Romans Before and After Western Christendom

On Amazon (US):

Andrew Perriman
Wipf & Stock Pub (2010), Paperback, 188 pages, $24.00

Comments

Andrew - you say:

Paul wrote his Letter to the Romans because he was under obligation as an apostle to the nations to ensure that the Gentile churches constituted an acceptable “offering” in response to God’s demonstration of mercy towards his people, in accordance with the Old Testament pattern

Where does Paul say that he had “the Old Testament pattern” in mind, as that which he was calling the Gentile churches back to?

Also, you speak of “the divine purpose” as:

That purpose was ultimately that Israel’s God would judge the idolatrous nations, impartially, according to their works, and rule over them throughout the coming ages

This seems me to displace an emphasis more at the heart of Romans, which is first the provision of Jesus and then the gift of the Spirit as the transforming power which reverses the universal problem of sin in the race of Adam.

The explicit statement of Paul’s intentions Romans in 15:8-21 is not so much directed towards Rome as descriptive of his ministry generally. But it is like a container which needs to be filled with content. In what way was Paul “proclaiming the gospel of God, so that the Gentiles might become an offering acceptable to God, sanctified by the Holy Spirit”?

The implicit intent of the letter addresses Jew and Gentile believer in Rome. It reminds ethnically exclusive Jews of their origins in a Gentile, Abraham, who was accepted not on the basis of works of the law, eg circumcision, but by trust in God’s promises of an heir through whom the world would be filled and blessed. It reminds arrogant Gentiles of their debt to Jews, who provided the root of the olive tree into which they were grafted as branches.

The letter describes Jesus’s ministry and death on the cross as addressing sin which predates but includes Israel, having its origins in Adam. The “gift of righteousness” (5:17) has now this broader context, which informs the key chapters of the letter: 6-8.

A key verse in the letter is 15:7, which draws attention to underlying undercurrents of division in the church at Rome, especially Jew/Gentile divisions. In the process of addressing these divisions, Paul has provided an unparalleled panorama of God’s universal purposes.

I suspect that one of the key theological needs of the current times is not to assert the supremacy of one theological school of thought over another, but somewhat akin to Paul in Romans, to reconcile them. The Reformed interpretation of Romans is resurgent, not because it is a conservative reaction, but because it highlights a central transformative core to the message of Romans. The NP interpretation is equally important, because it highlights a narrative which places a check on taking the message of Romans entirely into the territory of subjective individualism.

I’m just not sure at the moment where your own interpretation fits into this eirenic picture of peace, harmony and integration. I’m less sure that you want it to!

Apologies Andrew, and before you draw my attention to it, I completely misread your second paragraph! Of course, in your view, the “offering” of the Gentiles was their faith in Israel’s God arising from what Paul told them God had done for Israel. I wrongly took the paragraph to mean that Paul was describing God’s dealing with the “offering” of the Gentiles according to an OT pattern.

I realise I’m also restating a traditional view of Romans, which is a bit of a waste of time here. Without having read your book, I don’t understand how the letter can be read within a “limited” framework, when it takes the story back to Adam in 5 & 7, and locates the activity of Jesus within this context in 5,6,7 & 8. To which your response might be: read the book.

However, just before you posted this item, I was revisiting some earlier Postost discussions which were reflecting on a Tom Wright conference at Wheaton in April 2010, and a Together for the Gospel conference with John Piper the same year. Chris Tilling, in particular, makes a comment which goes to the heart of a problem with Wright, and the NP, and I think he may be including yourself in the criticism:

By protecting NT texts so thoroughly from eisegesis, his presentation of the gospel has sometimes been framed in a way that eclipses the significance of the good news for me. Yea, ‘modern individualism’ blah blah…

John Piper’s sermon is also worth listening to, and the transcript worth reading. If you can live without Piper’s particular take on “imputation”, Chris Tilling and Michael Bird’s criticisms seem unjustified to me, in the light of the whole. A reponse to Piper’s sermon was posted by you, and my reponse to that, whilst seeking to find a way out of an apparent impasse, failed (deliberately) to address the detailed points.

It’s regrettable then that a Piper/Wright conflict has arisen, which has as its background a Reformed/NP conflict, and fuelling that is probably a Reformed/Emergent conflict. Keeping my ear to the ground, I find that all kinds of falsehoods about Wright, in particular, are being propagated at seminary level (or any idea that doesn’t agree with Reformed conceptions generally). It seems to be about a lazy demonising of the opposition, rather than listening carefully to what each other is saying. In that respect, whatever was Piper thinking of when he addressed the “Together” conference as a gathering of those 7,000 “who had not bowed the knee to Baal”?

The final paragraph of my previous post sums up my feeling of the issues which Reformed thinking (or its modern-day counterparts) and NP thinking are each addressing. They will need to learn to get on with each other, or they will end up dismissing issues which are vital to the long-term survival of both, and the advance of the Christian community worldwide. And my relevant question is: are you also contributing to an unnecessary polarisation of debate?

Yes, I should have my own blog to air these thoughts on.

By protecting NT texts so thoroughly from eisegesis, his presentation of the gospel has sometimes been framed in a way that eclipses the significance of the good news for me.

This kind of strikes me as begging the question, first of all.
But I’m not sure that Wright (or Andrew, or the NPP generally), leaves the gospel without significance for us. How could it, when we live in its aftermath? Why can’t the significance be - most basically - that we live with and under God’s grace, and can/should learn to live in love, in accord with that reality, as one body, and as a witness to the world that the same grace is open to them?

I don’t see the practical significance working out much differently on either paradigm, honestly.

And my relevant question is: are you also contributing to an unnecessary polarisation of debate?

Having spent the last two years attending a church with a pronounced Reformed theology—and helping to teach their doctrine course—I think I can reasonably protest that I have done more than might have been expected of me to promote constructive dialogue between the historical and theological perspectives.

However, the question came up last night whether I thought the two positions can be reconciled. I don’t honestly think they can be. Yes, we could perhaps attempt to salvage the transformative gospel—I certainly still believe that people must undergo a radical transformation, change of allegiance, etc., when they are incorporated into the people of God. But at the level of worldview, conceptual framework, epistemology, hermeneutics, etc., modern theologies and narrative-historical approaches are fundamentally incompatible. For that reason I think the theological mindset needs to decrease and the historical mindset increase.

That is not to say that we have no need for theological reflection on scripture. I have said before that I think the rigorous historical reading of the New Testament ought to provide the springboard for a new post-Christendom, post-modern theologizing, which I think will be essentially prophetic rather than rationalistic.

And, yes, Peter, you should read my book on Romans, and you should start your own blog.

I certainly still believe that people must undergo a radical transformation, change of allegiance, etc., when they are incorporated into the people of God

I think any response I make to this statement will be almost inaudible, but it is where I find the Reformed paradigm much more convincing than NP/narrative-historical-whatever paradigm. In the latter, the “transformation” is indeed a “change of allegiance”, but it is extremely difficult to find what this actually constitutes, or in what it consists.

In the Reformed paradigm, you have a change of allegiance on the basis of a direct application to the believer(s) of the death of Jesus on the cross, dealing with sin, and direct Spirit reception, giving new life. If I didn’t have this, I would have very little, if anything, in my own experience, and very little to offer anyone else.

In the NP/narrative historical paradigm, these realities fade into insignificance. Continuity of the people of God is empasized in your own presentation, but the character and content of that people receive little definition, because the biblical basis for it has been removed - the NT having been made the discrete and exclusive possession of the 1st century “pre-Christendom” church. (We are “off the map” biblically, remember?).

So I think we need both Reformed and NP paradigms. The former provides a scripturally coherent basis for personal experience of NT realities. The latter gives significance to the whole of all the gospels as ‘the gospel’, and a more coherent view of OT and NT as a whole - within a narrative historical framework. It also, in my view, breaks down barriers between private and public experience of God more effectively than the Reformed paradigm.

There has to be dialogue between the two paradigms, in my opinion, as a result of which the paradigms in themselves would need to change. However, I think you are also right, Andrew. I think the direction in which you have pursued the narrative-historical forecloses reconciliation. That’s what worries me about it. It is highly totalitarian!

In the latter, the “transformation” is indeed a “change of allegiance”, but it is extremely difficult to find what this actually constitutes, or in what it consists.

Maybe. The narrative-historical-whatever paradigm has been very much a minority tradition throughout church history and only in the last twenty years or so has gained sufficient traction to attract broader popular interest. The sort of mainstream evangelicalism (which is not especially Reformed) that you advocate is the product of the long dominance of the theological approach to the construction of Christian “truth”. It’s how evangelicals have been conditioned to think.

Moreover, the narrative-historical paradigm has to do primarily with New Testament interpretation. It did not emerge to address questions of personal soteriology. I think it is right in a significant number of respects, where the theological approach gets it wrong, and has to be preferred for that reason. If it is right—and the jury is clearly still out—then we will have to relearn how to live, witness and minister in the light of it. This is not something that can simply unpacked, plugged in and switched on, like a flat screen TV to replace your old cathode ray tube.

Continuity of the people of God is empasized in your own presentation, but the character and content of that people receive little definition, because the biblical basis for it has been removed - the NT having been made the discrete and exclusive possession of the 1st century “pre-Christendom” church.

Nonsense. Complete nonsense, if I may say so respectfully. Under the narrative-historical reading, if you enter a transformed people, you have to be transformed. I’ve made the point over and over again on this site. You have still to deal with the legacy of personal sin. You have to trust that the death and resurrection of Jesus have completely changed the terms and conditions for knowing God. You have to reckon with the supreme lordship of Jesus over the forces that rule the old creation. You have to deal with the indwelling, life-giving power of the Holy Spirit. You have to stand in worship before the creator God. You have to learn a new type of obedience to righteousness. What more do you want? You still have to say the sinner’s prayer?

Plus, you have all that within a coherent, historically grounded understanding of the New Testament. I think—as a New Testament scholar—that it is extremely important that we get the frame of our thought right. If it helps to hang on to the modern theological paradigm until we do so, in order to maintain the dynamics of personal faith, fine. But in the long run, the modern theological paradigm simply does not make good sense of the New Testament, and I don’t think we do ourselves any favours by pretending that somehow the two systems can be held together. What would be the point of fixing a flat screen to the front of a cathode ray tube?

Thanks Andrew for your patient and clear articulation of the value and promise of a narrative historical approach over what is to my mind a tired and unfruitful Reformed/evangelical theological approach. For the life of me I don’t understand whats’s so difficult about seeing that if you start with a the story of the corporate people of God you also get the individual/transformative aspects thrown in while if you push for the priority of the individual and transformative you rarely get a robust corporate ecclesiology or missiology.

In my experience working with university students in Australia for over 10 years and with a major evangelical mission agency, the relentless emphasis on the individual has generally led to weak discipleship, little sense or commitment to the importance of the corporate/ecclesial nature of the christian life and an anemic mission/vocation in the world. In this context I have found the NP/Perriman approach immensely useful, tranformative and missionally powerfuly in ways which the old and tired individualised, internalised paradigm never delivered.

I went to a Reformed/evangelical theological college and I spent a number of years attempting to do life, minsitry and mission out of that paradigm and concluded that it did not have the biblical faithfulness nor the missional framework needed today. I know there are many who would disagree with me and do so loudly and aggresively but it seems to me that’s the sort of last frantic gasps you’d expect from something is in its final death throes. (I’m being a little provocative here :-)

Thanks, Rob. It’s nice to be understood!

Andrew - you shouldn’t say “Nonsense. Complete nonsense.” It just enflames me! For one thing I have been studying your work and ideas for longer than anyone else I can think of, and in more detail. I have also written detailed reviews of your two books: The Coming of the Son of Man and Re:Mission, and have published an entire sub-genre of fiction of my own, inspired by and pursuing your ideas.

The dominance of mainstream evangelicalism, to which I do subscribe, is not simply a modern phenomenon, but reflects orthodox Christian belief of all flavours throughout history. Individuals might come with different systems, however plausible, but the jury has tended to make its verdict not in their favour. As you say, the jury is out on yours and other N.H. readings. Yet I also think the narrative historical approach gets it right in a number of respects. So I’m not advocating one system uncritically ove another.

You say:

Under the narrative-historical reading, if you enter a transformed people, you have to be transformed.

So how are you transformed? You go on to say:

You have still to deal with the legacy of personal sin. You have to trust that the death and resurrection of Jesus have completely changed the terms and conditions for knowing God. You have to reckon with the supreme lordship of Jesus over the forces that rule the old creation. You have to deal with the indwelling, life-giving power of the Holy Spirit. You have to stand in worship before the creator God. You have to learn a new type of obedience to righteousness. What more do you want? You still have to say the sinner’s prayer?

First, it’s important to note that you do not say “transformation by trusting in the atoning death and the resurrection of Jesus” (we’ll come to the Spirit in a moment). You say that “the death and resurrection of Jesus have completely changed the terms and conditions for knowing God.” These are weasel-words; the death and resurrection of Jesus have no personal application in your system, because they applied uniquely to 1st century believers in their particular circumstances. The closest you come to a personal application is through baptism, but even there, you insist that it is baptism into a narrative, not into the atoning benefits of Jesus’s death, and his resurrection.

There is no adequate dealing with the legacy of sin for those outside Israel in the 1st century in your account. Sin was a historical issue uniquely relevant to Israel. There is no account whatsoever of universal sin, and how that might be addressed and dealt with. The closest you come to saying anything about sin outside Israel is in the opposition of YHWH to Gentile idolatry. That is indeed a huge area of sin, but does not approach the depth and extent to which the entire scriptures expose and explore the problem of sin, and how it is dealt with.

You have to reckon with the supreme lordship of Jesus over the forces that rule the old creation.

We have rather different ways of viewing how this came about. For you, it is primarily through an Old Testament pattern of judgement and rule. For me, it is through the renewal of creation through Jesus, and by identification with him.

You have to deal with the indwelling, life-giving power of the Holy Spirit

You have not provided any basis for believing in the on-going work and activity of the Spirit beyond AD 70. The Spirit, for you, is primarily given as a predictor of judgment, not as a renewing, transforming presence. You have not provided any explanation of how the Spirit comes to be “an indwelling, life-giving power”, other than, perhaps, by association with a people who are already transformed, but for whose transformation you have provided no coherent explanation.

You have to stand in worship before the creator God.

Again, at some point, you need to explain what this means for you, especially in relation to Jesus and the Spirit. I wonder what worship will look like under the N.H. paradigm you advocate. Probably very unlike any OT or NT example of worship that I can think of.

You have to learn a new type of obedience to righteousness. What more do you want? You still have to say the sinner’s prayer?

I can think of worse things than saying the sinner’s prayer. Which prayer would you want to use?

Finally you say:

Plus, you have all that within a coherent, historically grounded understanding of the New Testament. I think—as a New Testament scholar—that it is extremely important that we get the frame of our thought right

But it’s not coherent. There are gaping holes in it. I can’t believe that you cannot see them! You may be a New Testament scholar, but I’m amazed at the blindness. In any case, any new paradigm or framework of viewing the scriptures would do better to suggest that it is a way of viewing things, and invite people to view it that way, rather than insist on its total correctness before it has been subjected to cross-questioning. I don’t see any of the latter in any serious way by anybody. If I were to take the invitation as I suggest it, and use your summary above as a way of viewing things, in comparison with alternative viewpoints, I’d have to say that traditional viewpoints win hands down. It’s as if you’ve taken the most exciting message in the world and made it something rather dull, bland and largely irrelevant to my life personally - if that doesn’t sound provocative.

I just think the N.H. standpoint will have to do better, and I would say this of all its varied proponents that I have read so far, if it is to gain traction. I think this can only come about through looking at the strenths and weaknesses of each. I’m less optimistic about dialogue, as I think the Reformed school is just as totalitarian as the N.H.!

There are gaping holes in it. I can’t believe that you cannot see them!

Perhaps you could point them out for me, then.

I thought I was doing just that! I’ll just mention five areas in which I see problems in your account.

First, on the topic of transformation, I said:

There is no adequate dealing with the legacy of sin for those outside Israel in the 1st century in your account.

This is because the means of dealing with sin – the death and resurrection of Jesus – avail for 1st century Israeli believers alone, in their history, not ours or anyone else’s.

Second, in your account there is no basis for the continuing work of the Holy Spirit (also important for transformation) in the life of the believer outside 1st century Israel. I can only repeat my whole paragraph:

You have not provided any basis for believing in the on-going work and activity of the Spirit beyond AD 70. The Spirit, for you, is primarily given as a predictor of judgment, not as a renewing, transforming presence. You have not provided any explanation of how the Spirit comes to be “an indwelling, life-giving power”, other than, perhaps, by association with a people who are already transformed, but for whose transformation you have provided no coherent explanation.

Third is the question of the relevance of Jesus’s and the apostles’ teaching in the NT. If it was for believers in the unique circumstances of the 1st century alone, on what do we base subsequent and current belief or practice?

Fourth: if the church worldwide had got it so wrong from, say, the 2nd and 3rd century to today, how did we or anyone come to faith, since what we were told was based on a complete misconception, and how do we account for a worldwide faith based on this misconception?

Finally, an overarching issue is also this: that to obtain the benefits given to 1st century Israel, it is necessary, in your account, in the first place to join that people. There is no direct encounter with Christ in relation to his death, since that was intended for them, nor for us nor anyone else. The benefits are by association. I think this is inexplicable, but to assume there is a benefit by association: once the people for whom these benefits were intended, ie 1st century Israel, have died, how are the benefits to be either received or transmitted? We are left with a infertile hybrid, no longer the beneficiary of anything promised in the NT, because no longer qualifying.

These are at least five foundational areas where I see fundamental problems in your account.

I see, thank you. But these are not gaping holes in my “coherent” narrative-historical account of the New Testament. They are your perceived disconnections between my reading of the New Testament and your mainstream evangelicalism, with its central concern with the salvation and faith of individuals today. This is another matter altogether, which I plan to address in the next few days.

It’s not a disconnection between your reading of the New Testament and my “mainstream evangelicalism”, but a problem with your reading and any form of continuing Christian belief, beyond the 1st-3rd century.

Anyway, we’ll see what you have to say about this. I could have added other problems with your reading, but five is enough for now.

Meanwhile there’s the Liddington New Road street party this afternoon, six hours of complusory mingling with the neighbours, BBQ, entertainment for the children and “acitivities” for the adults. So Postost experiences a welcome respite from me from 3.00-9.00pm BST.

Peter, considering how much you have written here on Andrew’s blog and that you have read and reviewed two of his books, it’s simply mind-boggling that you are engaging in a discussion of his views on Romans while not having read his book on the subject. This seems rather inexplicable.

I’m sorry to have boggled your mind, Brad. In this particular thread, I was responding to Andrew’s rough summary, rather than his book. Over a period of time, Andrew has made many posts on Romans, to which I have also responded. I have a very good idea of what Andrew’s interpretation of Romans is, so I don’t particularly feel I need to read the book. You’ll also see that on this thread, the discussion broadened out considerably from looking at his “rough summary” in particular. However, in detail, I don’t think Andrew’s interpretation of the key passages of Romans we have been discussing stands scrutiny.

Hey Andrew,

Nice summary of Romans, very helpful. One thing you mentioned was that Paul’s hope of Israel repenting never was fulfilled. It seems odd that with such a strong hope that it would happen, it doesn’t, that just doesn’t sit well with me, seems like bad narrative. It’s like a foreshadowing in a movie which never comes to pass.

James Jordan suggests it did happen. He lays Romans 9-11 on Revelation to try to make sense of the story and says the “Fullness” in Rev. 14 is the Israel Paul speaks of in Romans. So, in that way, Israel does in fact repent. You can see the article here.

I’m curious on your thoughts on this approach. It seems like a little stretch to me, but the idea that all of Paul’s hopes for Israel being brought back never coming to pass doesn’t make sense to me either.

Steven, I skimmed through James Jordan’s article and may not have properly understood him, but it seems to me that what he overlooks is that Paul makes the salvation of the Jews who have been cut off conditional upon repentance:

And even they, if they do not continue in their unbelief, will be grafted in, for God has the power to graft them in again. (Rom. 11:23)

I think this answers your question. Paul hopes that his people as a whole will not continue in their unbelief, but he is realistic enough to know that this might not happen. The ball is in their court. He does not here prophesy that all Israel will be saved.

He cites Isaiah 59:20-21 and 27:9. Here the sequence of events is that God sees the unrighteousness of his people, he judges and punishes them, the place of their apostate worship is destroyed, they turn from their transgression—and on that basis “all Israel will be saved” (Rom. 11:26-27).

Since the quotations from Isaiah do not make reference to the inclusion of Gentiles, I think we should take “in this way” in verse 26 as referring forwards to the narrative of the redemption of Jerusalem following judgment. Verse 25 is a parenthetic explanation of the “mystery” of Israel’s obduracy.

If this all sounds too depressing or too inconclusive, then I would say that that is how history is. It seems to me entirely plausible, historically speaking, to think of Paul caught between the intense desire that his people would come to confess and the fear that even the destruction of Jerusalem would not bring them to their senses.