Paul: Rhetorician or Pastor?

A while ago I posted a bit on Romans, arguing that Paul’s letter is not a theological treatise but a pastoral letter.

Most commentaries contain a similar reminder.  “Let’s remember,” they begin, “that it’s not as though Paul is a professional theologian writing his magnum opus or a systematic theological treatise.  He’s a missionary and pastor, writing to an actual church of real people, not to professors of theology.”

But they invariably proceed to treat Paul’s letter as if he were a professional theologian writing his magnum opus or a systematic theological treatise.

This drives me nuts.  Because I read commentaries like I watch football, I end up exclaiming out loud while throwing my hands in the air.

One place—among many others—where this is obvious is commentators’ treatments of Romans 2.  Paul castigates the one who passes judgment beginning in v. 1 and many commentaries imagine Paul as something of a rhetorician dialoging with an imaginary interlocutor.

His diatribe is against “the typical Jew” or the self-satisfied legalist or the typical hypocrite who says one thing but does another.

Is all of this necessary?  Whatever happened to Pastor Paul and the actual church of real people?

Might it be the case—this is radical, so hold on to your hats—that Paul’s confrontation of “everyone who passes judgment” is directed at anyone in one of the two factions in the Roman church that is passing judgment on those in the other faction?

What is wrong with imagining that Paul is going after those who are being divisive in that community?

It sure seems that the rest of the letter is pastoral confrontation of precisely that problem.  Factions have developed along ethnic lines.  They are competing for community control and the tragic result is discouraged communal breakdown.

There are other points at which commentators on Romans forget themselves, or at least what they’ve written in their introductions.  But I just wonder if much of it begins with their handling of Romans 2.

5 thoughts on “Paul: Rhetorician or Pastor?

  1. Mark Stevens

    Tim have you ever read Eugene Peterson’s “The Unnecessary Pastor”? He treats Paul as if he were a pastor and the letter of Romans as if it were a pastoral letter. It is not a commentary but he has tried to model Paul’s style for pastors. It was helpful to me when I preached through Romans.

  2. Allen Browne

    Tim, you’ve previously pointed out that Paul is dealing with a Jew/Gentile pastoral problem within the church in Rome. In Rom 1:18ff, Paul has expressed a pretty typical Jewish polemic against Gentile sins (idolatry and licentiousness). HIs Jewish readers will be feeling comfortable at this point, when suddenly Paul turns the guns on *them*, I think.
    His main charge in Rom 2 is that Jews in Rome have dishonored God’s name (e.g. 2:24), possibly a reference to the events leading up to the Jews being thrown out of Rome, which did involve stealing money that was intended for the Jerusalem temple, and questions of sexual impropriety (the issues of 2:21-22, and an explanation for the otherwise odd ‘rob temples’ accusation).
    So, yes: the passage certainly needs to be heard in its immediate pastoral context.

  3. S Wu

    Hey Tim, I must confess that I get confused every time I read a commentary or book about Romans 2.

    The vocabulary of “judge” and “judgement” can be found in Romans 14, where the conflict within the house churches is mentioned. I think your reading is very helpful.

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