Scripture Behaving Badly in Rome

In my last few posts on Romans 5, I’ve claimed that Paul isn’t necessarily recounting salvation history.  He’s speaking of these things to fully describe the two realms up and running within creation—the cosmic realm called “Adam,” and the cosmic realm called “the grace-gift.”

In “Adam,” the cosmic power of Sin reigns, Adam’s transgression dominates and effects the condemnation of everyone in that sphere.

Verses 20-21 have usually been interpreted as a salvation-historical account of the Law’s entrance onto the redemptive stage.  Paul appears to speak negatively of its introduction: it led to the increase in transgressions (v. 20).  Lutheran and Reformed theologies rely upon this statement to support various purposes or functions of the Law.

I don’t think Paul is speaking salvation-historically here, however.  I think he’s referring directly to the situation the Roman churches are facing.

He’s referring to the renewed emphasis on the Law and Jewish identity with the return of Jewish-Christians from expulsion in 54 CE.  They have returned to find the corporate life of the Roman church(es) far less Jewish than when they left five years earlier, so they are re-emphasizing the Law, along with the Jewish calendar and Jewish patterns of community life.

Because of this, however, the mixed-race Roman Christian community is divided and discouraged.

Romans 5:20-21 can be read as follows:

The Law came in (to Rome) with the result that transgressions would increase; but where sin increased, grace abounded even more, so that as sin reigned in (spreading) death (throughout the Roman community), grace would reign through righteousness to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Paul is not referring to how the Law reveals human sinfulness in light of the revelation of God’s righteous character.  He’s talking about how the renewed emphasis on the Mosaic Law is making the Jewish Christians constantly point out how the non-Jewish Christians fall short of their standards.  They are creating an endless list of “transgressions” of the ways that the gentiles among them don’t conform to the Jewish practices they are re-instituting.

They are using Scripture to drive the gentile Christians back into their previously subordinate position in the church(es).  Paul’s argument in Romans 5-8 is that such a strategy is an unintended alliance with the aims of Sin and Death, cosmic powers seeking to destroy the Roman community through discouragement and division.

So, when Paul says that “the Law came in,” he’s not referring to the original giving of the Mosaic Law, but to the return of the Jewish Christians after being banished, and their re-emphasis on the Mosaic Law to restore the largely Jewish character of the Roman Christian community.

Tomorrow, I’ll cite some historical evidence to back up this reading of vv. 20-21.

But for now, this reading once again highlights how Romans is a resource for conflict resolution, especially for churches that are divided with various factions seeking to endorse their claims by citing Scripture.

Using the Bible to marginalize others or to exalt ourselves at others’ expense is using Scripture within the cosmic realm called “Adam,” with the result that Sin hijacks it and turns it into a means of discouragement and division.  As Paul will argue in Romans 7, that’s not a problem with the Law, but a disastrous situation that reveals the sinfulness of Sin.

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9 responses to “Scripture Behaving Badly in Rome

  • Andrew

    You argue “I don’t think Paul is speaking salvation-historically here, however. I think he’s referring directly to the situation the Roman churches are facing.

    Compare Paul’s argument in Romans here, to how he deals with it in [Gal 3:17-24]. Isn’t it related and similar? If so, doesn’t this suggest that Paul is addressing a broader misconception rather than something contextual to the Roman situation? If the theme Paul is dealing with re-emerges elsewhere to a difference audience doesn’t it lessens the idea that this is something specifically being directed at the Romans?

    If so, re-examine this claim “He’s talking about how the renewed emphasis on the Mosaic Law is making the Jewish Christians constantly point out how the non-Jewish Christians fall short of their standards.

    This supposes our sense correctly discerns (Paul’s) two groups and that we recognize the divide separating them. How can we be so certain we discern these two groups correctly? If we don’t, the divide between them isn’t the one we think Paul is addressing. This speaks to the theological consequences. I’m asking about typical Reformed presuppositions which may not be warranted. We must consider this because there were more Israelites than simply the Jewish ones (of the House of Judah). So why should should we ignore (exclude?) the rest (i.e. the non-Jewish ones)?

    Similarly, as we consider the non-Jewish Christians, is it likely cultural allusions such as ‘Adam’, ‘the Law’, ‘Moses’ would have any relevance (and therefore polemic force) with non-Israelites pagans? Would it even have polemic force with Jewish Israelites considering the conversion of non-Israelites to a faith that was evidently not traditional Judaism?

    You disagree, but I’ve suggested before that Paul was not addressing ‘Gentiles (meaning pagans)’ but addressing paganized Israelites of the Houses of Israel and replying to the observation that the divide separating Jewish Israelites from non-Jewish Israelites was that the non-Jewish Israelite were no longer under the law (having been paganized). NT Wright is seeing Paul’s argument on justification as having a covenant relationship component that Reformed theology overlooks, and that certainly fits with this observation.

    If this is true, what we are seeing is Paul facilitating what Ezekiel foresaw in [Eze 37:16,19] through his doctrine – thus – your two domains …

    (Also seen by Jeremiah “In those days the house of Judah shall join the house of Israel, and together they shall come from the land of the north (Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia and Bithynia), to the land that I gave your fathers for a heritage.” who also said “Behold, the days are coming, declares YHWH, when I shall make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah” etc.

    A theology of Paul containing two realms that align nicely with OT prophetic houses is certainly better than one that has nothing to do with a principle concern of the prophets by invent new cosmic entities which don’t exists elsewhere in the bible since the former demonstrates a much higher view of scripture by exhibiting greater theological cohesion between old and new covenant (and re-introduces well known ideas rather than introducing new, novel ones).

    • timgombis

      Paul’s arguments in Romans and Galatians are certainly similar, but I’m far more interested in interpreting these letters on their own before blending them.

      No one is absolutely certain of the historical situation Romans addresses, so I’m not claiming the final word. I’m convinced that the best scenario, however, is that Paul addresses a developing fissure between Jews and non-Jews.

      • Andrew

        Yes, ok fair enough. Blending between letters indeed supposes intimate familiarity with each letter. That makes sense to pursue one at a time even if our exegesis leaves open the possibility of common themes.

        I agree no one knows. Neither do I.

        Yet, I do propose (we at least consider) Paul is addressing an extant fissure between the House of Judah (Jews) and the House of Israel prophesied to disappear with the Messiah.

        (The problem with this proposal is, if it is true Christian’s will have a strong desire to reject it because they can’t see how it applies to their current theology; which is not to say there is no application – but it does mean a re-examination of existing theology might expose false presuppositions that requires a rebuild of theology from a more accurate (but less orthodox) foundation. Given how Reformers are reacting to NT Wright on the claim Justification isn’t about Soteriology, ‘me and my salvation’ but about ‘God and his ‘Great’ plan I can’t see how this would be anything but controversial).

  • Sean LeRoy (@seantleroy)

    Looking forward to the follow-up. I’ve never liked the salvation-historical (or redemptive-historical) explanation, but don’t know that I’ve come up with something I could call my own that “fit” either!

  • Andrew

    I think that’s ultimately the ‘big question’ Sean has anyone really come up with that ‘fit’ considering the entire corpus of Paul?

    Wright’s criticism of the traditional Reformed view is that it proof-texts Paul. Indeed (given his criticism) it seems to (he certainly points out where bits of Paul are clearly ignored).

    With respect to this post, I’m asking Tim (in no so many words) how seeing this bit by Paul as addressing a Roman concern isn’t effectively a type of ‘proof-texting’, given the consistency it has with other Pauline letters. It’s an important question.

    But I’m doing more than that. Rather than leaving this question in the air, I’m also proposing a solution by proposing a broader (not-entirely Roman) theme I believe is at the heart of Paul’s message (one, I know, Tim currently rejects (politely)).

    • timgombis

      You may indeed be onto something, Andrew, and I may be guilty of proof-texting. I’m glad that you note that while I don’t agree with your proposed scenario, I do so politely!!

      • Andrew

        Look again at the Piper/Wright debate. Wright claims reformed orthodoxy has been proof-texting, not Piper.

        If orthodoxy itself has been selective (meaning incorrectly applying greater weight to some scripture while ignoring others, proof-texting in a sense), and you follow orthodoxy – that doesn’t mean you are guilty of proof-texting. In reacting to your posts, my responses are not reacting to you personally, but your reflections of orthodox positions.

        In some sense I am trying to engage your observations against other problems. I assume your observations are being driven like most intellectual pursuits, to solve problems you recognize.

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