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.