Very reluctantly, I am going to take issue with Peter Enns here. In a recent “Bible for Normal People” podcast he advocates what is basically a New Perspective reading of Paul’s letter to the Romans.
It’s not about individuals but it’s about a collective. If I can put that a little bit differently, the book of Romans, to use theological language, the book of Romans is not about soteriology—how you get saved. It’s about ecclesiology. Ecclesiology means the church and the study of the church. In other words, who makes up the people of God?
This is fine as far as it goes, and maybe we shouldn’t expect “normal people” to go much further at the moment. But I think a more drastic overhaul of the standard Protestant understanding of Romans is called for.
I encourage you to listen to the podcast or read the transcript, especially if this way of thinking is new to you. I like his brash, honest, iconoclastic approach to scripture. But for convenience here are the ten essential things that Enns thinks we need to know about the letter.
1. It’s not entirely clear whether Romans was written to Jews or to Gentiles or to Gentiles who had adopted Jewish ways, or to some combination of the above.
2. The book was written to address corporate or group concerns; it does not share the old fastidious Protestant preoccupation with the salvation or justification of the individual. This is what the so-called (and now rather passé) New Perspective on Paul is or was all about. “Paul is more talking about: what does it mean to be the people of God? And what role do Gentiles have in Israel’s story?“
3. Similarly, while election is at the heart of the letter, it is not the scary Calvinist doctrine of the double predestination of individuals to life or eternal damnation but the election of a people, now consisting of both Jews and Gentiles, that counts.
4. Paul takes the argument back through Abraham, who was an uncircumcised Babylonian when he was called, to Adam in order to make the point that the world is no longer under the dominion of death but under the dominion of life. It’s an argument “about the importance of Jesus undoing the reality that all human beings have to deal with which is death”.
5. The ethical material in Romans mostly has to do with how Jewish and Gentile believers should get along with each other. “I think that’s really Paul’s ultimate goal here is to demonstrate to the world that these two groups can get together and what he calls elsewhere the dividing wall of hostility has been torn down.”
6. There are three prominent women mentioned in chapter 16 (Phoebe, Prisca, and the apostle Junia), though Paul seems to have been ambivalent about the role that women should play in the spread of the gospel. “So I just think that’s really interesting.”
7. Paul has to address the awkward fact that Jews are not much interested in a crucified Messiah. However, he is confident that the influx of Gentiles will make the Jews jealous, and then “at the right time when the time of the Gentiles is complete, the Jews will come back. And then at that point, Jew and Gentile will be together as this big family of God.”
8. The sense of urgency in Paul’s teaching about Jews and Gentiles comes from the fact that he believed that the return of Jesus was imminent. “It’s going to happen very soon.” Only it didn’t. Jews and Gentiles didn’t come together as one people of God. Instead they went their separate ways for two thousand years and counting. But the Messianic Age isn’t over yet, and Enns seems confident that the Jews won’t “miss the second coming”.
9. Paul’s insistence on being subject to governing authorities because they have been instituted by God shouldn’t be taken too literally.
10. Paul is a creative, first-century Jewish reader of the scriptures. We should not expect him to handle the Bible in the way that modern critical scholars do.
So the core logic of Romans, according to Enns, runs something like this: Jesus’ death-resurrection was a defeat of death itself and therefore is relevant for all humanity; therefore God has started to include Gentiles in his elect people, which raises the question about the conditions of membership; therefore Jewish and Gentile Christians need to learn to get along with each other; and there is some urgency about this task because Jesus is coming soon.
As I said, this is certainly a step in the right direction. Paul’s letter to the Romans, like scripture as a whole, is not about individuals and God, it is about a people and God. Election, gospel, judgment, justification, salvation—these are all conceived primarily in corporate or national terms.
But I would argue that two further big steps need to be taken, which will get us well beyond the standard New Perspective position.
First, the Bible is the story of a people in the midst of other peoples. In particular, from the exilic period onwards, it is the story of Israel living in the threatening shadow of powerful empires. The significance of Rome for our understanding of Romans is found not merely in the exhortation to be “subject to the governing authorities” (Rom. 13:1).
Secondly, the story of Israel and the nations is just that—a story. Moreover, it is a turbulent and violent story, so the question of where it was going to end up was naturally at the forefront of Jewish minds at the time. Paul’s letter to the Romans, I suggest, was firmly part of that story.
So yes, we’ve got to put the individual back in the boat of community. But then we’ve also got to launch the boat, a long way back upstream, into the dangerous, fast-flowing river of history, with its treacherous rocks and rapids, and see where the current takes it.
To understand Romans we have to begin neither with soteriology (the old Romans Road schema) nor with ecclesiology (the New Perspective argument) but with eschatology. Because Enns assumes a classic second coming of Jesus eschatology, he struggles to find a constructive place for it in the argument of the letter—it’s just one of those things that Paul didn’t get quite right. In fact, Paul’s eschatology in Romans is constructed in quite different terms, pointing us in the direction, I think, of much more credible and relevant outcomes. Eschatology is where it begins, not where it ends.
1. Jesus had been appointed “Son of God in power… by his resurrection from the dead” (Rom. 1:4), which meant he was the Son who would receive the nations as his inheritance, the ends of the earth as his possession (Ps. 2:7-8). He was the “root of Jesse…, even he who arises to rule the nations” (Rom. 15:12; cf. Is. 11:10). Romans is about the coming of the kingdom of God—notice that Acts ends with Paul under house arrest in Rome “proclaiming the kingdom of God and teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ” (Acts 28:31).
2. In view of this, Paul believed that the God of Israel had determined to reveal his righteousness—or rightness or credibility or integrity—by judging both his own rebellious people and the idolatrous and corrupted pagan world. This was the point of the programmatic allusion to Habakkuk 2:4 in Romans 1:16-17. YHWH would judge the Jew first and then the Greek, just as Habakkuk had prophesied judgment on wicked Israel followed by judgment on the even more wicked Chaldeans. I assume that Paul was thinking in the same realistic historical terms. Salvation, both for the Jew and for the Greek, consisted in surviving the wrath of God. How? The righteous would live by faith.
3. The prospect that Israel would be destroyed raised the question of how YHWH would stay true to his promise to Abraham. The solution was that a new people of God would emerge, defined not by the Jewish Law but by faith in the Son of God who would eventually rule over the nations, whom YHWH had put forward as a “propitiation” by his death for the historical sins of Israel (Rom. 3:21-25).
4. The redefinition of membership according to faith in Jesus as the future ruler of the nations meant that Gentiles could participate as Gentiles in the life and vocation of the renewed people of God. Their inclusion was a concrete demonstration of the fact that the God of Israel was indeed the God of the whole pagan world and that his Son would soon rule over the nations. Paul’s ecclesiology in Romans is fundamentally eschatological: it points towards a radically different future for the ancient world.
5. The emphasis on suffering in Romans 5-8 is an integral part of this. In order to get to the rule of Christ over the nations, in order to share in that glorious vindication, the churches would first have to endure rejection and persecution. In order to be glorified with Jesus, they would have to suffer with Jesus (Rom. 8:17). This is where election comes into it:
For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified. (Rom. 8:29–30)
6. Those who were persecuted had to understand that they had been chosen or predestined to be conformed specifically to the image of the Christ who had suffered and was vindicated. This is not a general doctrine of election to salvation, with or without a corresponding election to damnation. Nor is it quite right to say that it’s about the inclusion of both Jews and Gentiles in the chosen people of God. What is chosen in Romans is that group of people which would have to bear the brunt of Jewish and pagan opposition to the coming eschatological transformation of the ancient world. For that end to be achieved, they would have to learn to be Christ-like, and in that way the exalted Son would be “the firstborn among many brethren” (Rom. 8:29).
7. So Paul warns the believers in Rome that it is time to wake from sleep, the day of persecution is at hand—this was only a few years before Nero’s pogrom against the Christians following the fire. They must put on the armour of light and prepare themselves for the coming battle (Rom. 13:11-14).
8. This whole narrative accounts for the ethical or parenetic material in Romans. On the one hand, Jewish and Gentile believers needed to learn how to bear joint witness to the coming rule of YHWH over the nations of the Greek-Roman world. On the other, they needed to learn how to suffer together, as one body, in the firm expectation that eventually they would be publicly vindicated.
9. It’s true, things didn’t work out quite as Paul had hoped. The day of persecution dawned within a decade. Wrath came upon the Jew a few years after that. It took much longer for judgment to come upon the Greek-Roman world and for Christ to be confessed as Lord by the nations of the former pagan empire. But the Jews as a people did not at any point in this process see the error of their ways, repent, and acknowledge that their God had appointed Jesus Son of God in power; there was no mass regrafting of Israel into the rich root of the patriarchs.
So there we are. Didn’t quite make it to 10.