God’s Supremacy & Ecclesial Unity

Most interpreters recognize that Rom. 3:21-31 is a crucial text in Paul’s pastoral letter to the Roman Christians.  While 3:21-26 typically receives the most attention because of its apparently heavy-duty theological orientation, Paul makes a few pivotal arguments in vv. 27-31.

Paul’s presentation here reminds us that his primary concern in this letter is to foster unity in the church in Rome.  Jewish and non-Jewish groups in the Roman church are increasingly divided.  Jews are drawing on their historic role as the people of God to endorse their claims to privilege and priority in the church. 

Paul sees this as “boasting,” fostering destructive communal dynamics.  He reminds everyone that their justification before God comes on the basis of the faithfulness of Jesus for everyone who believes.  Both Jews and non-Jews are justified as a gift.

His two arguments here follow a similar pattern—he makes an assertion and then grounds it on justification having no reference to Jewish (or any other ethnic) identity.

In v. 27, he claims that boasting is excluded by reading Scripture to foster a community of faithfulness and then backs that up with justification by faith without reference to Jewish identity (v. 28).  In v. 29, he makes his second argument and again grounds it by restating that justification comes by faith without reference to whether or not one is Jewish.

But what is Paul doing by appealing to God’s oneness in vv. 29-30?

Paul is going right to the heart of Jewish identity here, building his argument on the Shema, the prayer / confession that Jews utter in the morning and evening.  It comes from Deut. 6:4-9, and in its shortened form, it is simply, “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one.”

It’s a confession of the absolute uniqueness of the God of Israel and his universal supremacy.  This conviction is at the heart of Israel’s Scriptures.  The gods of the nations are mere pretenders while the God of Israel is the Most High God, highly exalted above all gods.

The Psalms contain variations on this central tenet of Israel’s faith, mentioning constantly that the God of Israel is the “Great King over all the earth” (Ps. 47:2), and that “he is exalted above all gods” (Pss. 95:3; 97:9).

These notes emphasize that the God of Israel is not merely a regional deity, having sovereignty over the little sliver of land called “Judea.”  He is, rather, the Creator God who rules over the whole of creation, and he is on a mission to reclaim all of it for the glory of his name.

Paul draws upon the Shema in vv. 29-30 to address the Jewish Christians’ claims to privilege.  He puts the question to them in v. 29: “is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles also?”

He’s asking them whether God’s sovereignty extends to non-Jews as well as Jews.  The answers is obvious—of course it does!

Paul is implying here that the Jewish Christians in Rome are violating Israel’s confession of God’s universal kingship.  Because God is the Great King over all the earth, the universal sovereign, it is not the case that those of Jewish identity (those who are “of the works of law”) have priority with God.

That is, claiming that Jews have an inside track with God is, ironically, to claim that the God of Israel is not the Great King over all the earth, a denial of the fundamental conviction of Israel’s faith. 

The God of Israel, however, is not a regional god.  He is the God of Israel, the Creator God, the Great King over all the earth—both Israel and the nations.  Because of this, salvation has no reference to one’s ethnic identity.  Justification before God is enjoyed by everyone and anyone who is “in Christ,” participating in the faithfulness of Jesus by faith.

The reading of the law that shapes and fosters this reality is a reading of the law that generates, constrains, and fosters faith/faithfulness.  In Paul’s words, by a “law of faith.”

These arguments lead naturally to Paul’s point in v. 31 about “establishing the law.”  Because he builds his presentation precisely on the faith of Israel, there is no ground whatsoever for the Jewish Christians in Rome to object. 

The unity of Jew and non-Jew among God’s people in Rome flows directly from the identity of the God of Israel and a reading of the law in line with the aims of the Spirit.

Again, Romans is not an abstract systematic theology but a vigorous pastoral letter to a multi-ethnic church struggling to maintain unity in the face of emerging divisions.  Reading Romans as Paul meant for its first recipients to hear it sheds light on how practical it was then and how relevant it is now.

In a racially and socially divided up America in which many of us currently live, work, and minister, such a reading of Romans has the potential to provide power to transform our still-segregated churches so that we truly can make manifest that God is not the God of the upper-middle class only, nor the God of white American evangelicals only, nor the God of any other singular group.  The God of Israel, the Father of Jesus, is indeed the Great King over all the earth.

7 thoughts on “God’s Supremacy & Ecclesial Unity

  1. mshedden (@sheddenm)

    Tim, I was wondering as you go through Romans if you had any thoughts on Douglas Campbell’s work, the Deliverance of God? I don’t know if that is something you would respond to in a comment or write a whole post on (it is a long book) but I would be interested in hearing your thoughts.

    1. timgombis

      I probably won’t, actually. That’s kind of regrettable, but I’m not really interacting with other major proposals, just thinking through the letter apart from serious engagement on a scholarly level. I’m trying to keep it more accessible… don’t know how well I’m succeeding, though!

  2. John Thomson

    Hi Tim

    Still reading through your posts. Much I appreciate. A few quibbles (as usual).

    1. ‘his primary concern’ I would argue for ‘a primary concern’. Ecclesiology is central but so to is soteriology.

    2. Not sure that ‘law of faith’ refers to the law understood as that which points to Christ (though that is the way faith ought to see it v21). I think here ‘law’ is simply ‘principle’. In vv21-26 he has stressed righteousness is by faith, and is faith in righteousness ‘apart from law’. The principle of faith, not works, is the way of righteousness.

    3. I see the law established by Christ bearing its curse. At the cross the law’s righteous claims are taken seriously and met. As an aside, any attempt to make the believer still obligated to law (rule of life) does not take the law seriously; rather than establishing its authority, it undermines it since it changes the very terms of the law and draws its teeth (arguing we must keep it but its sanctions no longer apply). The law’s sanctions were its very nature and authority.

    I agree that segregated churches are a disgrace to new creation and a denial of the gospel. This is further aggravated today by a) our mobility that opens up choice b) our sophisticated and exacting tastes which we indulge in church-picking, all too often on worldly sociological premises.

    1. timgombis

      1. I think it’s necessary to read Romans as a letter and not a systematic treatment. Careful not to impose a systematic theological grid onto the letter (ecclesiology and soteriology). The question isn’t what “topic” he’s addressing, but how does his grammar reveal his central points? If this doesn’t match our theological categories, we’ve got to change our categories.

      2. Taking nomos as ‘principle’ is largely abandoned by more recent commentators. I’m not saying that ‘law of faith’ points to Christ, but that Paul is referring to a way of reading Torah–so that it fosters faith. That’s opposed to a reading that fosters the supremacy of Jewish identity over non-Jewish — and this is tied to the Roman situation, not an abstractton.

      3. Where is the curse in Romans? Not mentioned. That’s imposing Galatians on Romans, which isn’t a good move. You’re working with a law-gospel construct that I see as problematic, which is to say that’s a far longer discussion than I can address here! See my Paul book…

  3. John Thomson

    Hi Tim

    I may not be working with the law/gospel construct you think. Certainly, I am not working with a traditional Reformed one, nor a Lutheran one. My overall position is much nearer NT Wright or, even better, Michael Bird than a classical Reformed view. Though in my view the law (Mosaic Covenant) is a covenant of works; it has gracious elements but is not gracious. Ultimately the best modern expression of the Pauline understanding of Law for me remains Moo. However, I increasingly try to simply grapple with the text of Scripture within the limits of my competence and faith.

    Yes, I recognise that ‘principle’ has less kudos at the moment. Fashions change and theologians (like every other academic discipline) love fashions. A future generation will ‘rediscover’ principle. We must be fully persuaded in our own minds. Not that I think the issues at stake are so great in this case anyway. However, the contextually antecedent faith is gospel faith (vv21-26) not a ‘law of faith’. In Romans, as in Galatians, the law (Mosaic Covenant) as far as I can see, is not of faith.

    I agree with your point about systematic grids. And I agree that Paul writes into a context. That does not mean that he does not develop themes and an argument in pursuit of pastoral concerns. I approve of an inductive study – who in their right mind doesn’t – but I also see Scripture as a unity and believe one book can shed light on another on the basis of this. It is not an either/or but a both/and.

    The curse is as you say not explicitly mentioned though its effects are clearly present (3:19). I may well buy your Paul book and your Ephesians book. I have enjoyed some of your articles.

    1. timgombis

      My lecture on Law in the NT on Tuesday began by making the point(s) that nomos can’t be “principle” in Romans and that the Law is not a covenant of works. There are loads of texts to work through on nomos in the NT, but just to say that we’ll probably disagree regularly on that issue.

Leave a Reply to timgombis Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s