I’ve been claiming that Romans is a pastoral letter from Paul written to resolve a developing conflict in the Roman church (or, network of house churches). Paul’s arguments, therefore, are directed to that end—to bring about unity among all those in Christ, both Jewish and non-Jewish.
This letter is often regarded, however, as Paul’s systematic theology. Near the end of his apostolic career, on this scenario, Paul sits down to write his magnum opus—his fullest statement of the gospel. Here’s how he regards all humanity under judgment, the justification of the ungodly by grace through faith, the mechanics of sanctification, how election works, and how Christians ought to behave themselves.
The Christian church—at least in the West, and especially Protestants—has read Paul through the lens of Romans. We have historically regarded this letter as the center of Paul’s theology.
I don’t think this is right. Inasmuch as we can speak of a “center” of Paul’s theology and insofar as any extant NT letter represents that, I think Ephesians is a better candidate. Among other reasons, here are just a few:
First, Romans is situational while Ephesians isn’t. Paul argues as he does in Romans because he’s trying to resolve a conflict. Many of his statements are directed to that end, and when they’re taken out of their communicative context and transformed into abstract theological principles, they give a distorted picture of Paul’s theology.
Ephesians, on the other hand, isn’t situational. It’s probably a circular letter that Paul intended to be read to a range of churches in Asia Minor, informing them of what God has done in Christ and how they can participate in that. Because Paul writes to give multiple Christian communities a broad understanding, we can say that Ephesians represents Paul’s basic gospel proclamation (i.e., Paul’s “theology”).
Second, and along that line, the argumentative trajectory of Romans isn’t replicated in any other NT letter. That is, when Paul writes to other churches, he doesn’t reproduce the shape of his presentation in Romans. Galatians is somewhat similar because of a similar situation, but even here, there are significant differences in what he says.
The basic shape of Ephesians, on the other hand, is replicated in Colossians. Now, most NT scholars have argued that these letters are post-Pauline productions and likely copied from each other, so I know I’m assuming that both are authentically Pauline. One could just as easily argue, however, that Ephesians represents Paul’s fundamental proclamation—his basic “theology.” When he writes a letter of welcome and introduction to the Colossians—a church he didn’t found and hasn’t visited—he articulates his basic understanding of the faith. And this, of course, is nearly identical to Ephesians.
Third, when Luke, Paul’s ministry colleague, sketches Paul’s proclamation, he has him repeatedly proclaiming Jesus’ resurrection, ascension, and current reign as cosmic lord. I’ve argued elsewhere that this is precisely what drives Paul’s argument in Ephesians, with Eph. 1:19-23 as the thesis statement.
As I said, I’m making some assumptions about authorship here, and much more must be said to settle things conclusively, but I think a better case can be made that Ephesians, not Romans, represents Paul’s understanding of the gospel. I’m not alone on this limb, by the way—N. T. Wright and Luke Timothy Johnson have made similar suggestions.