What is Romans?

What sort of communication from Paul is Romans?  It’s been quite common to assume that Romans is a systematic treatise on the Christian faith.  Many commentaries contain an outline of Romans structured according to systematic theological categories.  Paul deals with the doctrine of justification here, the doctrine of sanctification there, the doctrine of election over there.  

If Paul had any practical purpose, it’s that he is informing his readers of his theology in an attempt to establish his orthodox credentials.  He wants to secure Rome as a mission base for his eventual goal of reaching Spain with the gospel (Rom. 15:24).

Such a perspective, however, regards Paul and his letter to the Romans wrongly.  Paul was not the initiator of Western abstract theology and he is not “treating” various doctrines throughout his letter.

Romans is intensely occasional, something very like 1 Corinthians and completely unlike the volumes by Berkhof or Hodge.  It is a pastoral letter written in an apocalyptic frame and from an apocalyptic perspective. 

It is pastoral because Paul is dealing with a church in crisis, writing to help them understand the causes of their division, to lay out for them the way forward, and to encourage them to pursue unity as God’s people in Christ.  He says in Rom. 15:15, “I have written very boldly to you on some points,” something he cannot say if he is merely theologizing in the abstract. 

Paul names their divisive conduct as sin and uses their slogans sarcastically, strategies he also utilizes in the Corinthian correspondence.  I think he’s doing this with his use of “to the Jew first and also to the Greek” (1:16; 2:9-10).  This isn’t Paul’s mission strategy but a subversive use of a phrase that Jewish Christians were using to establish dominance over their gentile sisters and brothers in the Roman fellowships.

The interpretive payoff of this approach is that there is far less systematic theology and abstracted salvation-historical material in Romans than historically has been recognized.  Paul is not so much reflecting on the broad historical sweep of God’s work in the world, the history of his judgment and salvation, or realities about the Law and sin in the abstract.  He is, rather, describing realities as they exist within the Roman Christian community, helping them to see the full range of the cosmic realities that are at work so that they can take appropriate action that is fully consistent with their new identity in Christ.  Romans is thoroughly pastoral.

Paul’s letter is also apocalyptic in that he reinterprets their situation from a cosmic perspective, pulling back the curtains of physical and earthly reality to take a full account of spiritual realities.  He talks about sin and death, not as unfortunate choices that people make (we sin), and as something that happens to us at the end of our lives (we die).  Sin and Death are actors on the cosmic stage, hostile cosmic forces that bring pressure to bear on the corporate life of the Roman community. 

Paul’s talk about the Law in Romans can only be understood as we realize that for Paul the Law of Moses has been hijacked and manipulated by these malevolent cosmic forces.  This evil apocalyptic power alliance is corrupting the Law in order to pervert the work of God by the Spirit to redeem communities for the name of the Lord Jesus.

From this perspective, expressions like “in the Spirit” and “in Christ” do not merely have to do with forensic statuses of individuals, but are actual locations on the map of the cosmos.  They are places within the present evil age that constitute outbreaks of resurrection life where Jews and gentiles are united in communities that anticipate the coming age.  These new creation outposts, however, are precariously situated in that they are prime targets for the enemy to disrupt, discourage, and destroy.  Paul tells the Romans that there are other dynamics at work in their community and other characters involved in the cosmic drama than those for which they have accounted to this point.  The hope of the gospel, however, is that there is a far greater power available to them to triumph over these forces than they may realize.

Romans, then, is not so much a tempered theological treatise as it is a vigorous pastoral letter written in an apocalyptic frame, exhorting the community in Rome to fully embrace their identity as the new creation people of God.  They are the people whose purpose it is to signal that the restoration of all of creation is imminent.

The recognition that this is the character of Paul’s letter has been made possible to some extent by of the shattering of older paradigms by the emergence of the “new perspective.”  Whereas previously Romans may have been regarded as a collection of proof-texts for our systematic theologies, newer perspectives remind us that our reading of Paul’s letter must be related at point after point to the situation going on in Rome. 

We can be far less certain regarding the historical situation Paul addresses.  It seems reasonable to assume that the tensions had to do with the return of a large number of Jewish Christians to Rome with the death of Claudius in 54 CE.  Claudius had expelled the Jews from Rome in 49, fostering the rise of gentile leadership in the house churches and the development of non-Jewish patterns of Christian community life. 

With the return of Jewish Christians to re-populate the churches and synagogues, and to re-take positions of leadership, there are tensions.  The Jewish Christians seem to be asserting their priority with the God of Israel in an effort to re-establish their prominence among the network of churches.  For their part, gentile Christians are emphasizing their priority over the Jews since the gospel has gone out to the nations.

Whatever the actual problems occurring in the Roman church or church network, all we have is Paul’s letter to the Romans.  That is, we only have access to how Paul conceived of the problem(s) among the Roman Christians.

14 thoughts on “What is Romans?

  1. joey

    As a lay person, I’m finding what you’re writing in these pieces to be very useful. I wish more scholars were making these things accessible to the rank and file of the Church. You point out elsewhere that we are in the “Post-NPP Era.” Ha! In my circles, people don’t even know who NT Wright IS nor do they know anything about the NPP. It will be decades before the NPP fully penetrates some areas of christendom.
    What you’ve written here on Romans is good stuff. Paul speaks about Sin as a “king” and a “slaveowner” – much bigger, much more dramatic than our individual acts of evil. The day it was explained to me that Romans 4 is not a discussion on the “theology of how one gets saved” was a great day. Paul is, rather, simply establishing Abraham as the father of ALL who believe. What you’ve said about Romans here rings true with me.
    Please keep writing what you’re writing. Don’t let the hard-lined, Piper-type critics dissuade you.

    1. timgombis

      Cheers, Joey!

      It’s not as though all of Christendom is past the NPP era, nor is it really all that necessary for rank-and-file Christians to know much about it or about Wright, Sanders, and Dunn. I’m only making the point that in Pauline scholarship, the hey-day of that era was in the 80’s-90’s and is now past. There’s something of a trickle-down effect into evangelicalism, where folks get fired up about stuff a bit after scholars are finished discussing it.

      All that’s important for us, however, is that we read the Bible with our eyes open and for what biblical writers are actually saying.

  2. athanasius96

    “From this perspective, expressions like “in the Spirit” and “in Christ” do not merely have to do with forensic statuses of individuals, but are actual locations on the map of the cosmos.” I love this sentence. In a world still mentally divided into “sacred” and “secular” it is important to realize that the spiritual battle is rooted in our world at all points.

  3. Brian LePort

    @Tim: *Applauding* The more I study this epistle the more amazed I am at how Paul does precisely what your saying. He is bringing the local situation in Rome into the big story of the gospel. We’re not known as Jews and Gentiles, but by whether we are in Adam or in Christ. It is a new allegiance and a new identity and it should shape how the church in Rome fights those who seek to divide it.

    Do you have any plans on writing a book on Romans like what you did with Ephesians?

  4. Joel

    Romans, then, is not so much a tempered theological treatise as it is a vigorous pastoral letter written in an apocalyptic frame, exhorting the community in Rome to fully embrace their identity as the new creation people of God. They are the people whose purpose it is to signal that the restoration of all of creation is imminent.

    Excellent and agreed! Although I had never thought of Romans as a pastoral letter. I confess that lately, I see it as rhetorical masterpiece, with one part devoted to reconditioning the Jews and other to the Gentiles without thinking of the reasons (pastoral) behind Paul’s words.

  5. S Wu

    Thank you, Tim, for this excellent post. Like others, I am especially impressed with what you said about “in Christ” and “in Spirit”, and the fact that it is a pastoral letter, occasioned by the circumstances of the house churches in Rome. I like what you said about Paul’s gospel being apocalyptic, that it is about God’s saving act at the fullness of time.

    While I find myself in agreement with you, I do have some questions. But first, some stories about my faith journey.

    I came to faith in a non-Western culture, and the first churches I went to were “independent evangelical” and/or inter-denominational. In that context my faith journey started with a lot of engagement with the Scripture in my own personal reading and within a non-Western community. My theological studies has, however, been very Western, and it is in my studies that I come across the debate around the New Perspective and the older theological confessions.

    Interestingly in my original culture there were many rules and principles for living, as well as many “sociological identity markers” (borrowing the language of some “New Perspective” scholars) that marked out my identity. To become a follower of Christ meant two things for me (plus many other things): (1) My eternal destiny no longer depends on those rules; (2) My identity no longer depends on those social/ethnic markers. Furthermore, one of the most important faith experiences for me is the fact that I am a sinner and that through Christ and the Spirit I have been set free from the bondage of sin and death.

    In light of that, I find that sin is both about guilt and shame. Law-keeping is both about performance and ethnicity. Pistis is both about belief and faithfulness – and, as I mentioned before, “allegiance” is probably a more helpful word for me. Sinful behaviour is both individual and communal. Individual, social, communal and structural sins are all interconnected.

    When I come to Romans, I find that it is an occasional letter, but not without a strong sense of conviction on Paul’s part about his gospel, especially regarding the story of the resurrection of the crucified Christ, and the story of humanity from Adam to Christ, and to those who are now in Christ.

    At the same time, as I come to Romans from my cultural background, what Paul says about sin in terms of idolatry makes a lot of sense. I am a sinner – and we are a sinful community – precisely because we are idol-worshipers (both literally as former worshipers of traditional/animistic household gods and in terms of our attitudes and behaviours). The notion of the wrath of God is easy to understand, for people who are very much aware of the cosmic power of the deities. It is where the notion of right standing with God by pistis in/of Christ is such a wonderful thing. We are deeply aware of our sinfulness – both in terms of guilt and shame (and both individually and communally). Right standing with God independent of good deeds is a liberating realization.

    I guess my questions are around whether we are making a distinction between the individual and communal aspects of the gospel to a degree that we forget that these are after all inseparable. For sure Paul was writing to a community. But does it mean that the individuals in the community are not individually responsible for their own sins (which are of course inseparable from the community as a whole)? In the case of Pauline theology, are his gospel and his discussion about the law only about Jewish ethnocentrism? Or is it also about the sins of humanity, both individually and in terms of the sins of communities?

    In the modern-day debate around the NPP and the non-NPP, I found myself constantly being caught up between the views held by the two different camps. If I agree with Tom Wright on certain issues, then some of my friends would assume that I don’t believe in penal substitution (even though they don’t know whether I believe in it or not). If I raise questions against the New Perspective, then my other friends would say that I am too conservative or too narrow. Does it have to be like this?

  6. jimhoag

    Tom, great post. But I wanted to ask you, you said “Paul names their divisive conduct as sin and uses their slogans sarcastically, strategies he also utilizes in the Corinthian correspondence. I think he’s doing this with his use of “to the Jew first and also to the Greek” (1:16; 2:9-10). This isn’t Paul’s mission strategy but a subversive use of a phrase that Jewish Christians were using to establish dominance over their gentile sisters and brothers in the Roman fellowships.”

    I like N.T. Wright’s rendering of these Scriptures and your take as well, but what do you think of this take on the same Scriptures (Ro.1:16, 2:9,10) by those like Andrew Perriman who say that if there is to be judgment on the Greek, there must FIRST be judgment on the Jew. Perriman seems to go farther than Wright and says Paul is not talking about a final judgment here or some transcendent state of affairs; but that the Jews in their synagogues should have provided the visible, public, corporate benchmark of righteousness by which God would at some point “judge” the whole Greek-Roman empire (oikoumnē), just as in the past he had “judged” Egypt, Assyria, and Babylon. But the Jews didn’t, so Paul said, “the name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you”. On the day of wrath, on the day when they hear Jerusalem has been “surrounded by armies” and realized that its “desolation has come near” (Luke 21:10) they will find that their circumcision, their distinctive Jewishness counts for nothing. It will not halt the Roman armies, it will not prevent the destruction and slaughter. What WILL safeguard the status and integrity of Israel in this basic historical and eschatological sense will be the inward circumcision of the heart that will lead to the abandonment of evil deeds and a radical following of Jesus Christ; practicing love, justice, and righteousness in the earth in which the Lord delights. Do you see the above interpretation as valid, as an alternative or not?

    1. timgombis

      Hi Jim — it’s Tim, not Tom.

      I’m only beginning to dig into the secondary literature on Romans and haven’t read Andrew’s book just yet. Wish I could, but can’t really evaluate that reading just yet.

  7. Pingback: Elsewhere (07.25.2011) | Near Emmaus

  8. reyjacobs

    Paul has never been to Rome at this point and knows nothing about their situation. The stated purpose for writing is to beg them for a change to get to come and preach for them (see the intro, and the closing in ch. 15.) As such, there is no way he would have written on all his scary theories like predestination–because then they would not invite him for a lectureship. The epistle is interpolated. About all that is authentic is roughly 1:1-12, 15:20-32, and chapter 16. The rest is added by a sub-apostolic editor.

      1. reyjacobs

        Not at all. It just is obvious that the letter is counterproductive to Paul’s purpose. If he is looking for funding for his mission to Spain, as he says in ch 15, then he wouldn’t ensure that their answer is “hell no” by attacking everything they believe.

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