Paul’s letter to the Romans (Introduction)

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I will be teaching an undergraduate class on Romans this semester at London School of Theology, so my plan is to outline my reading of the text here as we go along. I start with some general introductory remarks about my approach and a commentary on Romans 1:1-18. I am putting forward conclusions rather than arguments for the most part, so you may feel that there is some question-begging going on. I’m happy to go into more detail in the comments, or get a copy of my book on Romans The Future of the People of God: Reading Romans Before and After Western Christendom.

Introduction

The basic theological orientation of Romans is not vertical but horizontal. The problem that the letter addresses is not the existential separation of man from God but a foreseen rupture between past and future and the dramatic transformation the world encompassed by Paul’s mission. Such key theological themes as gospel, salvation, justification by faith, Law and grace, predestination, therefore, play out along the horizontal or historical axis.

The horizontal orientation of the letter in Romans also makes it easier and more plausible to align Paul’s thought with the story of Israel. He is telling a story that is part of a larger story.

This means, on the one hand, that the presuppositions of the text are Jewish before they are “Christian”; and on the other, that we should read and incorporate into our reading the narrative contexts of Old Testament quotations and allusions. The first instance will be his use of Habakkuk 2:4 in Romans 1:17. Paul is not necessarily a historically correct interpreter of the the Jewish scriptures, but I think we can safely assume that he draws on their implicit narrative structures as he develops his argument in Romans.

The coming crisis would be a multifaceted one, consisting of wrath against the Jew, wrath against the Greek, the salvation of the community of believers, and the establishment of the rule of Jesus over the nations.

  • The “wrath” of God is an uncomfortable notion to have to deal with, and it gets sidelined in much modern theological discourse, both popular and scholarly. But the New Testament makes little sense without it. The critical point to grasp is that it belongs to the horizontal dimension of biblical thought. The wrath of God is nearly always experienced as a social or national crisis, threatening the well-being and perhaps the existence of a city or people.
  • Paul makes reference quite intentionally in the early chapters of Romans to the Greek as the counterpart of the Jew. This is not a synecdoche or part-for-the-whole figure of speech: the Greek does not stand for all Gentiles or all humanity. Paul is thinking quite specifically of the dominant Greek civilisation in the eastern part of the Roman Empire, which had been the context for his missionary activities up to this point.
  • In that respect, I think we may say that Paul was writing out of a Greek cultural-religious context, not into a Roman one. Insofar as the letter presupposes a social analysis, it is Greek religious practice that is at issue (cf. Rom. 1:19-23; Acts 17:22-29) rather than than Roman imperialism.
  • Paul most likely was writing from Corinth in the mid-50s. The letter may have been carried by Phoebe, a servant of the church in Cenchreae, a port to the east of Corinth (Rom. 16:1-2). Gaius, Paul’s “host,” and Erastus probably lived in Corinth (16:23).

Paul presents himself as an apostle or emissary of the risen Jesus, charged with the task of proclaiming his present status and future rule both to Jews and to Gentiles across the Greek-Roman world, from Jerusalem to Spain (1:1, 15; 15:194-29).

He then has the secondary task of forming communities of believers who share his conviction and vision and preparing them for the eschatological rupture (not “rapture,” note), which will be for them a “day” both of fire and conflict (13:12; 1 Cor. 3:10-15) and of vindication.

The eschatological narrative, therefore, determines not only the theological content but also the practical teaching of the letter, in two main respects.

First, a growing number of Greeks have come to hope in the future rule of Jesus over the nations (15:12); they confess him as Lord, they have manifested the same experience of the Spirit as Jewish believers, and they have been baptised into the story of his suffering and resurrection. This raises some difficult questions about the consistency and reliability of God and the future of Torah-based Israel, which are addressed at various points in the letter, but in practical terms it makes the establishment of good relations between Jewish and Gentile believers a matter of priority.

Secondly, Paul expects the churches to be fiercely opposed, both by Jews and by Gentiles. This makes the endurance of suffering central to his practical teaching or parenesis.