Summarising Romans again: from individuals to groups to apocalyptic narrative

Read time: 7 minutes

Pete Enns has an excellent Bible for Normal People podcast on Romans in which he “shares 10 things essential to understanding the book of Romans.” I wrote about this last year, but since Geoff Leslie asked about it, here’s a brief rerun.

Enns’ emphasis on the importance of groups gives a better account of the letter than Andrew Errington’s tweeted synopsis, which reads the text, in time-honoured fashion, as a treatise (or “tweet-ise”) on personal salvation and life under grace (except that, by some unexplained logic, in the end all Israel will be saved).

Where I then differ from Enns is in stressing the importance for interpretation of an apocalyptic narrative that envisages the realistic manifestation of divine wrath, against Israel first, then against the pagan world, culminating in the triumph of Christ over the hierarchy of the “many lords” of the Greek-Roman oikoumenē. Eschatology enters Enns’ scheme only as failed expectation. I think it plays a much more constructive and credible role.

1. Romans is written to both Jewish and Gentile believers.

I agree that Paul writes to a church of Jewish and Gentile believers, but I think that a good part of both the rhetoric and the content (perhaps chapters 2 to 11) is shaped by the debates that he had with his own people in the synagogues. In his head Paul is arguing furiously with the Jews.

2. It is addressed to a group or collective rather than to individuals. So Romans is not mapping a road for individuals to walk along in order to get to heaven; it is about how two very different groups, Jews and Gentiles, should live together on the basis of their belief in Jesus as saviour.

Two points to make here. First, I would say that Romans is about what is happening to the Jews against the background of what is happening to the “Greek” world. Paul’s apocalyptic narrative has in view the triumph of Israel’s God over Greek-Roman paganism. Secondly, what unites Jewish and Gentile believers is not their belief in Jesus as saviour but their belief in Jesus as future judge and ruler of the nations. Salvation is secondary. I’m inclined to say that Enns has merely collectivised the salvation paradigm.

3. Election applies not to individuals, as in Calvinist systems, but to a community. It is the family of Jesus’ “brothers” which is chosen (Rom. 8:28-30). At the heart of the letter is a theological dilemma: “How can God continue to be faithful to Israel as a particular people and at the same time say Gentiles now can be a part of the family of God as Gentiles?”

Again, yes and no. In general terms, yes, God has chosen a people for his own possession; it is the purpose and fate of the community that is determined by election. But Paul’s focus in Romans, I think, is mostly narrower than this. At this moment in time God has chosen a group of people who will suffer as Jesus suffered, who will be glorified as Jesus was glorified. It is in this limited sense that some have been predestined to be “conformed to the image of his Son” (Rom. 8:29). Jesus’ “brothers” are the martyrs.

4. Paul takes the argument all the way back to Adam. Condemnation because of Adam’s sin means death, not hell; justification leads to new resurrection life for all as the counterpoint to death for all. Enns prevaricates a little, but he appears to be saying that the whole world, all humanity, is now under the dominion of life rather than of death.

I disagree with this. Humanity’s existential implication in Adam’s sin means that all die. But the statement about Christ is controlled by Paul’s quite narrowly focused eschatology. The Jews have no advantage because they share in the sinfulness of Adam; therefore, they are under condemnation and face annihilation. But God put Jesus forward as a propitiation for the sins of Israel, which means that many—including a growing number of Gentiles—are being put right with God. On what grounds? Because they believe that Jesus will eventually be revealed as judge and ruler of the nations.

5. The two groups in the churches in Rome, Jewish and Gentile believers, need to learn to love 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. And now there’s one people of God.”

I think his ultimate goal is to present himself to the church in Rome as a herald of the future reign of Christ over the nations (cf. Rom. 15:12) and as someone who thoroughly understands the theological and ecclesiological implications of that hope. This includes the challenge of getting Jewish and Gentile believers in Jesus to work together as an obedient and holy offering to the one true living God (Rom. 15:16; cf. 12:1-2).

6. On the evidence of Romans 16 women featured prominently in Paul’s apostolic ministry.


7. Paul has to address the problem of why his people, the Jews, are not “seeing the impact of this Jesus”. The reason is that Jesus doesn’t “fit the messianic playbook”. The influx of Gentiles will eventually 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 be together as this big family of God.”

More or less, but see the next point.

8. But this makes sense only because Paul expected Jesus to return soon. This didn’t happen. Paul’s hope was thwarted, and this has implications for our doctrine of scripture: “it’s one of these things that I think just bears the marks of this true humanity of scripture that Paul… inspired sure but not perfect.”

What troubles Paul is the prophetic conviction that the Jews are “vessels of wrath prepared for destruction” (Rom. 9:22). This is pretty much consistent with Enns’ argument, on the one hand, that Romans is about groups of people, and on the other, that condemnation means death (ie. destruction), not hell. This is what shapes his argument in Romans 11, not the prospect of Jesus returning soon. So I have argued, on this blog and in my book The Future of the People of God: Reading Romans Before and After Western Christendom, that Paul hoped that his people would repent if not before then after judgment. As it turned out, the hope of Israel’s salvation was thwarted—not because the eschatological event didn’t happen when expected (it happened exactly when expected) but because the Jews did not repent. But either way, this all bears witness to the humanity of scripture, which is what Pete Enns is so good at highlighting.

9. The demand for subservience to the Roman authorities in chapter 13 is pragmatic. They should “work with the system so that here in Rome, of all places, the epicenter of the world at the time. … Here of all places, you want the gospel to flourish and not to be sidetracked.” But Paul does not follow his own instruction because he would not bow the knee to Caesar.

I see Paul’s demand for subservience to governing authorities as a continuation of his teaching in Romans 12:14-21. When persecuted, they are not to take things into their own hands and get themselves in trouble with the civil powers. Vengeance belongs to the Lord. He will bring wrath against the pagan world in due course.

10. “Paul does not interpret his Bible the way modern people read.” He interprets the Old Testament creatively, with limited respect for the historical context. For example, he changes the meaning of the quotations from Hosea in Romans 9:25-26; and in Romans 10:5-13 he develops a “Christotelic” reading of Deuteronomy 30. Paul gives the Old Testament texts an “interpretive creative twist to bend the scripture around who Jesus is and what God has done in Christ.”

It’s difficult to argue with this, but I’m not sure we really need to say that Paul changed the meaning of these texts. Perhaps he found in Hosea 2:23 the principle that, at a time of crisis and restoration, YHWH is at liberty to “sow her in the land” and sovereignly reconstitute his people. He is doing something like what he did before, but on a bigger stage. Similarly in Romans 10:5-13, Paul is self-consciously developing a counter-narrative to the Mosaic one about a “righteousness that is based on the law.” This is rhetoric, not exegesis, and Paul, I think, was fully aware of the difference.

Samuel Conner | Fri, 09/13/2019 - 16:48 | Permalink

I got the distinct impression in reading NT Wright’s commentary on Romans that one could make the case that the letter is Paul’s defense of YHWH from the charge that He has been unfaithful to His covenant promises to the patriarchs. The finer scale arguments (relating to “justification” of individuals or groups, depending on one’s priors) could be regarded to serve this larger agenda.

On that view, Romans would be “about” theodicy, with the specific “evil” in view what has happened and may yet happen to Israel.

Is that a defensible view?

@Samuel Conner:

I would make that a corollary rather than the driving concern. YHWH has made his Son future judge and ruler of the nations. But first he must hold his own rebellious people accountable; they stand condemned to historical obsolescence by the Law. Therefore, the question arises of how YHWH will remain faithful to his promise to the patriarchs. Answer: by demonstrating his righteousness apart from the Law by putting forward Jesus as a propitation for the sins of the Jewish people (Rom. 3:21-25).