How to rescue Romans from the fish tank of Reformed theology and return it to the sea of history

Read time: 5 minutes

The clownfish Nemo has been netted in the open seas, just off the reef that he calls home, and imprisoned along with a number of other exotic tropical creatures in a fish tank in the office of a Sydney dentist. In addition to the humiliation of their captivity, they face the threat of being bagged and committed to the unsafe keeping of the ghastly, destructive child Darla.

This is a metaphor – or a parable. Nemo and his friends in the tank are the key elements of Paul’s theology in Romans: gospel, wrath, salvation, righteousness, faith…. They have been forcibly decontextualized and confined to the artificial and very modern environment of a personal narrative, whose end is the assured salvation of the individual. As if that affront to their dignity were not bad enough, if they do not escape soon, they are likely to meet a wretched end at the hands of a brutish and careless secularism.

The point is not that these beautiful creatures have been rendered meaningless – they have been kept alive, and to some good; but they have been diminished, misrepresented, misunderstood. So what can we do to ensure that they are returned to the surging, expansive sea of history? Here are some suggestions.

1. Begin by imagining what the sea must be like. Journey there in your mind. Travel out to that distant reef and plunge in, just to get a feel for the dense, cold, heaving, murky reality of first century Jewish history. We have got so accustomed to looking at fish in tanks that our minds have been reduced to the same boxed, angular dimensions. Much of this is just about a change of perspective.

2. History is a sea of texts. The Bible is just one of them. We cannot expect to make sense of its complex biology if we ignore the world in which it exists, the unique ecology that produced and sustains it. So we should read the Jewish Scriptures and the diverse literature of Second Temple Judaism; we should read the laments over the destruction of Jerusalem; we should read Josephus and the classical historians of the era; we should read the Fathers of the early church, looking not for dogmatic generalities but for the signs of a clash of worldviews and cultures. We do not learn much about a clownfish by watching it swim through a little model of a submerged classical arch.

3. Fish in a tank are idealized specimens in an idealized, regulated environment – they are how we imagine life in the sea to be. The water is clear, aerated and filtered for contaminants, the floor of the tank is decorated with colourful plastic coral and miniature pirates’ chests, the weed is carefully managed, there is no decay or death, no predation, no disease. In our minds we need to shift from an idealized, regulated theology to a non-idealized theology; we need to abandon the bright neo-platonic forms, the simplistic narratives, and immerse ourselves in the struggle, which was Paul’s struggle, to make theological sense of difficult, ambiguous, disorienting historical phenomena.

4. Keep in view the stupendous backdrop of the reef and the wide ocean. The big words that Paul uses refer not to abstract or inward or spiritualized essences; they refer to prominent, large-scale features in the political-religious seascape of his world. Wrath is the judgment of God, the decisive intervention of God, against corrupt Jewish and pagan cultures; Paul’s gospel tells of historical transformation to come, when the righteousness of Israel’s God will be demonstrated; and faithfulness is what will get the harassed, ostracized, vilified, persecuted community through this difficult transition.

5. It may help, in fact, to chart the underwater topography. Mark the prominent features on a map: the gullies, the outcrops of startling coral, the banks of sand, the overhangs, the caves, and the shipwrecks – above all, the shipwrecks! Paul’s Letter to the Romans must be situated purposefully in a narrative landscape of salient events: the return from exile, the revolt against Antiochus Epiphanes, the Roman invasion of Judea, numerous futile uprisings against imperial rule, the expulsion of the Jews from Rome by Claudius, the pogrom against Christians under Nero, the shipwreck of national Judaism in the war of AD 66-70, the sporadic outbursts of intense persecution across the empire during the early centuries, and the final defeat of the ancient gods in the fourth century.

6. Don’t be bullied by ordinary Reformed folk – the well-meaning dentist and the less well-meaning Darla of Nemo’s world – who tell you that Romans means what it has always meant since the sixteenth century. Claim the moral, theological and hermeneutical high ground. Stand up for what is right.

7. We need to repent of our abuse, our modern complacent domestication, our diminution, of the subtle, elusive, extraordinary creatures of Paul’s submarine theological world; and we need to do what we can as eco-theo-activists to restore them to their natural habitat, where they can flourish and grow big and dangerous again.

8. If people say that we have to keep these fish in a tank or modern city-bound people will never get to see them, tell them that they do not understand history. Tell them to stretch their minds, buy a boat and scuba gear, take the risk of venturing out on the open sea, and plunge into that alien world. Get to know it better. It may be that the rising ocean of history is about to overwhelm our shallow, low-lying modern faith. What good will our down-sized, reductionist, self-centred, privatized theologies do for us then?

Hey Andrew,

I love the analogy, having watched Nemo about a hundred times with my kids and having grown up in a Dutch Reformed Church with ONE reading of Romans. How would you evaluate Barth's reading of Romans in the context of the fish tank of Reformed Theology?

Hi Marius, you might have to help me out here. I’ve only seen Finding Nemo two or three times, and I know even less about Barth’s Römerbrief.

I can imagine him objecting to the cosy domestication, but I’m not sure it would have occured to him to question the hermeneutical legitimacy of removing the fish from the particular reef of first century Jewish history in the first place.

He disliked modern historical criticism because it diminished the revelatory power of the text. My contention would be that we need the historical-critical imagination now, with our postmodern, post-colonial, post-Christendom perspective, in order to recover the revelatory of the text and make sense of our relation to it.

Todd Williams | Wed, 12/03/2014 - 21:42 | Permalink

Hi, Andrew.  I’m a bit late to the party, but I have a couple questions.  You stated:

Wrath is the judgment of God, the decisive intervention of God, against corrupt Jewish and pagan cultures; Paul’s gospeltells of historical transformation to come, when the righteousness of Israel’s God will be demonstrated;”

In your view, is the judgement of corrupt pagan cultures the victory of Christendom in the fourth century?

Also, do you see this “transformation to come” as the continued story of the family of Abraham up to the present?  And along those lines, do you interpret the new creation (heaven and earth) to be that which started with the fall of Jerusalem and victory of Christendom?  Trying to get a handle on your perspective…

It’s never too late, Todd. I’m here even if everyone else has gone home.

1. What Paul imagined looking forwards and what we can see looking back are not necessarily the same thing, but it seems to me to make historical sense to suppose that by wrath against the Greek (cf. Acts 17:31) Paul meant judgment on the whole pagan system—the defeat and overthrow of the gods of the Greek-Roman oikoumenē. Historically speaking, that happened as the empire converted to Christianity. It was the moment, moreover, when pagan persecution of the followers of Jesus came to an end, the churches were vindicated, and Christ was confessed as Lord by the nations.

2. This certainly transformed the ancient pagan world, giving us Christendom, with its close and obviously problematic relationship between church and state. That arrangement lasted until the modern era but now survives in the west only nominally. So we are in a situation well beyond the prophetic vision of the New Testament. But yes, Christendom, whether we like it or not, is a massive part of the story.

3. No, I do not take the (Preterist?) view that new creation began either at the fall of Jerusalem or with the conversion of the empire. Mostly in scripture “new creation” is a metaphor for God’s renewal of his people. The resurrection of Jesus, however, was an ontological novelty prefiguring an absolute making new of all things following a final judgment, as described in Revelation 20-22. I think John goes out of his way to show that all evil and death are finally destroyed.

Thanks for the reply.  So when you say, “we are in a situation well beyond the prophetic vision of the New Testament” you would only exclude Revelation 20-22?  If so, do you believe the reign of Christ and the martyrs will be a literal 1000 years? (you probably have a post on this—I just haven’t seen it)

If we consider that the wrath of God against the Greek meant the overthrow of the pagan system, does it not seem much more lenient than that of the Jews who denied Christ?  My history is not the best, but there seems to have only been nominal pagan suffering during the transition to Christendom, albeit the punishments were eventually severe for those who worshiped pagan gods.  By contrast, accounts appear to hold anywhere between 250K and 1.1 million Jewish deaths in the Roman-Jewish war of 66-70.

Perhaps I’m presuming ‘judgement’ to look a certain way?

Hey Todd,

I’ve enjoyed your questions and Andrew’s responses.  I’d like to take a crack at your observation that the number of deaths between the Jews under Rome and pagans under Christendom are disproportionate.

One thing I’d say is that God’s judgement appears to be primarily corporate.  In other words, he judges corporate entities ultimately by destroying them and bringing an end to the world system they have created and rule over.  Obviously, this has ramifications for the individuals who are part of that entity, but the specific mechanics seem variable — all the way from the death of a ruler to dispersion of the people to widespread death of the people.  The goal does not so much seem to be to make individuals pay for their crimes but to effectively wipe out the corporate entity as a power and the power structure that exists because of it.

Another element I’d add (that perhaps a full Preterist would not) is that I believe there remains a final renewal of creation that involves the full resurrection of the faithful.  Their oppressors will not take part in this.  Their “eternal death” and denial of the new creation is an eschatological component to God’s judgment that applies across the board to every individual that falls into that category — understanding of course that it’s God’s prerogative who does and doesn’t end up that way.

So, while the numbers of the deaths of pagan Roman oppressors might be disproportionate to the Jews in the Jewish war, their corporate entity was destroyed, their power shattered, and their world system was obliterated.  The faithful were vindicated, liberated, and exalted to power.  This judgment against Roman oppression was fulfilled even if the mechanics didn’t involve a large number of individual deaths.

In addition, the eschatological component still applies.  Faithful martyrs from the Jewish wars were/will be resurrected and enjoy the new creation, while unfaithful oppressors have nothing but Sheol.  And, thus, the judgment still applies at a final, individual level.

Thanks for your comment, Phil.  That does seem to make sense.  I was suspecting that I had “wrath” moreso in mind rather than “judgement.”  

Also, Andrew, re-reading your above comment helped clear it up as well:

“It was the moment, moreover, when pagan persecution of the followers of Jesus came to an end, the churches were vindicated, and Christ was confessed as Lord by the nations.”

Phil did an excellent job of answering your question. My general argument (eg. in The Coming of the Son of Man) is that there are three eschatological horizons in the New Testament: for Jesus the dominant horizon is the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple; for Paul it is the victory over paganism; and beyond this in a very indefinite and largely symbolic future is a final judgment and remaking of heaven and earth. John’s thousand year period, during which Jesus reigns from heaven with the martyrs, separates judgment on Rome from new creation. But this matters much more to us than it did for the New Testament churches.