What Sort of Text is Romans?

I’m beginning a two-week intensive course on Romans today and thought I’d re-post this rumination on reading Paul’s text for what it is rather than for what many expect it to be.

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.

15 thoughts on “What Sort of Text is Romans?

  1. Jerry Goodman

    As I was reading this post, I was thinking about Paul’s letter to the Corinthian church about the weapons of warfare. Not in using human reason etc. but the power of the Gospel in this pastoral Roman letter. Am I thinking on a right track? This is a nugget to enjoy.

  2. gjohnston2244

    I agree it isn’t abstract theology. Just curious about how your reached your conclusions about the apocalyptic, cosmological nature of the letter with the “spiritual warfare” dimension? I’ve read some of your Ephesians Drama and see how you arrive at your conclusions there.

    1. timgombis

      Paul widens the scope for envisioning their conflict to include the cosmic powers of Sin and Death, characters who have wills and intentions for the Roman community and who are at work to bring about further conflict and, ultimately, division. The community needs to understand how the “boasting” of various sub-groups over against others actually plays into the hands of the aims and intentions of Sin and Death, which are at work in the “members of the (corporate) body” to bear fruit of division.

      That is to say, Paul isn’t merely working on the plane of what’s visible but opens the heavens, as it were, to speak of other actors at work, including all sorts of cosmic figures (Rom. 8:38-39). For conflict resolution, then, Paul adopts a cosmic perspective!

      1. Greg Johnston

        My question was probably not asked well enough. I understood from your first summary how you are reading the text. But I was curious what in the text led you to conclude that this reading captured Paul’s intent? For example, what led you to conclude that Paul was using “Sin and Death” (among other “cosmic figures”) to denote cosmic powers with malevolent personalities and malicious intent? Your citing Romans 8:38 was the sort of thing I was looking for, but I would suspect there is more than this one verse undergirding your hypothesis.

      2. timgombis

        Paul speaks of Sin and Death as active throughout Romans 5. They both “entered” through one man and now they both “reign.” Throughout Romans 7, Paul speaks of Sin as scheming against the “I,” deceiving the “I,” and using the commandment against its own nature and the “I”‘s intentions.

        In my view, the problem in Rome (at least how Paul reconfigures it) is that there’s one group reading the Law wrongly, which is leading to the “boasting” of that group over another. He sets their conflict in a wider frame to show them that this group is actually reading the Law in terms of the aims of Sin for their community. That is, the “Law of Sin and Death” (Rom. 8:2) (i.e., “reading the Law in accord with the aims of Sin and Death”) is resulting in devastation and discouragement. They need to discern the aims of Sin and Death in their community and stop reading the Law in those terms. That is, they need to stop reading the Law to bolster the claims of one group over another. Using the Bible to beat others up is no way to build up a community.

        The need to read the Law in terms of the aims of the Spirit–“the Law of the Spirit of Life” (Rom. 8:2). Paul also calls this the “Law of faith” (3:27).

        I think this is Paul’s intent in Romans 7; to demonstrate for them how their actions are stirring up the power and Sin in their community, giving to its aims for them–division. They need to take a different tack, no longer submitting the members of their (corporate) body to Sin, but submitting them to righteousness, to the aims of the Spirit. Becoming a servant-oriented community defeats the aims and intentions of Sin and Death among them.

      3. gjohnston2244

        Thanks for following up on my follow-up. I think I see where you are coming from. I always assumed Paul was speaking of “sin and death” in that way simply as a literary device. However, you possibly know of something contemporary (or earlier) outside the canon suggesting that “Sin and Death” are recognized as a demonic duo. I’m not familiar with the literature. Anyway, thanks for clarifying.

  3. Rick Wadholm Jr.

    I am hoping you will turn this into a commentary in the future following the vein of thought you’ve proposed above. I would say that such a work is SORELY needed on Romans.

  4. gjohnston2244

    Tim, I’ve thought about it some more. I think you are right that Paul characterizes “sin and death” in terms of the scheming and malicious intent that you have observed. But is this terminology an attempt to describe literal, metaphysical-spiritual realities or is he putting it in these terms as literary devices to dramatize the spiritual reality? I always thought it interesting that Paul wrote of sin in Romans 6 in a way that he could easily substituted three other “s” words: Satan, self and sarx. I don’t know if Paul is attempting to represent “sin” as a malevolent spiritual being, but there’s little doubt that Paul understands that there is such a being.

    Just reflecting out loud, so to speak.

    1. timgombis

      A number of scholars who regard Paul as having an apocalyptic worldview regard Flesh, Sin, and Death as an “apocalyptic power alliance” that are in league with the principalities & powers, perverting creation so that humanity walks in idolatry and rebellion against God. This perspective is very helpful, I think, in Romans and Galatians because it helps to explain what happened to the Mosaic Law. The apocalyptic power alliance hijacked the Law and made it an unwitting accomplice in their corruption so that it ended up enslaving Israel rather than giving them life.

      A number of Pauline scholars take this more active conception of Sin and Death, like J.C. Beker, Lou Martyn, Leander Keck, among many others.

      1. gjohnston2244

        Tim, thanks for kindly hanging in there with me. This is closer to what I was asking. So to understand why these scholars regard flesh, sin and death as an apocalyptic power alliance in league with the P&P’s, I would need to read those scholars (or take your class!). Very interesting. I must admit I’m skeptical, but I probably need to be a bit more open to this sort of thing. Either way, it’s new to me and it would take me a while to warm up to it. I thought “flesh” worked well as a psycho-physiological reality.

        Anyway, thanks for letting me in on some of the groundwork undergirding your exegetical framework for Romans.It is a bit more plausible to me.

      2. timgombis

        I think that most (if not all) major Western readings of Romans (and Paul in general) regard his worldview as a “flat” one. Or, perhaps it’s better to say that we imagine that Paul thought in terms of a “closed heaven,” or just a mechanized, scientific view of reality like we do. So, the only actors on the stage are humans, and we also think about the Holy Spirit and God’s work among the church in Christ.

        But Paul’s worldview is thoroughly Scriptural and shaped by the Orient–the ancient near East. The heavens are “open,” and there’s a direct correspondence between earthly and heavenly realities. There are more actors on the stage for Paul, including Sin, Death, Flesh, Satan, and the powers and authorities.

        Texts like Gen. 4 shape Paul’s vision, where God speaks to Cain and says that “Sin is crouching at your door, and its desire is for you, but you must master it.” So, Sin has aims and intentions and it knows how to invade, corrupt, pervert, distort, and establish dominion. It’s the human task–powered by God’s Spirit–to resist its influences and corrupting effects through behaviors shaped by Jesus in obedience to God. Though it’s a neglected aspect of Western interpretations that want to turn Paul’s texts into systematic theologies, reading his letters through that lens makes more passages make better sense.

  5. Pingback: Timothy Gombis on Paul’s Letter to the Romans | Imagine with Scripture

  6. Pingback: Timothy Gombis on Paul’s Letter to the Romans | Imagine with Scripture

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