An introduction to a short ‘commentary’ on Romans
Here is a first draft – and it is already about 200 words too long! Your thoughts are, as always, appreciated.
In 1545, Martin Luther, the famous initiator of the Protestant Reformation, sat with pen in hand and mused upon his 'conversion' experience. Though 'a monk without reproach', he described his state as 'a sinner before God with an extremely disturbed conscience'. But upon reading a text in Romans 1 he started to understand the righteousness of God not as a threat but as 'the passive righteousness with which merciful God justifies us by faith'. Thus it was through a text in Romans that he felt he had 'entered paradise itself through open gates'. John Calvin likewise said that 'if we have gained a true understanding of this Epistle, we have an open door to all the most profound treasures of Scripture'.
Open 'doors' and 'gates' ... yet many find that Romans rather slams these doors shut, a matter all the more tangible these days given the contemporary debate in Pauline studies concerning the language of 'justification', 'law', 'righteousness' and 'the faith of Christ'. To help open doors for contemporary travellers into these Himalayas of Pauline theology, it will prove most useful to keep in mind two issues: i) the situation Paul addressed and ii) the place of Christ's life, death and resurrection in the story of Israel. This is important as Paul may well have been attempting to answer a different (even if overlapping) set of problems to those generated by Luther's 'extremely disturbed conscience'.
The situation: for reasons which are not necessary to examine here, Romans was likely written into a context of tension between Jewish and Gentile Christians. Indeed, it is likely that some Gentile Christians felt superior to Jewish believers, people who had probably only recently returned to the Roman Church after a temporary exile from Rome because of an Edict by Emperor Claudius.
The story: the bumpy narrative of the Old Testament (OT) Scriptures is as follows: it runs from creation, fall, God's redemptive solution for fallen creation in the covenant with Abraham, through Egypt, the exodus, conquest of the land, the judges and the monarchy, the inheritance of the curse of the law and the Assyrian and Babylonian exiles, and finally a partial, yet incomplete, restoration. So ends the OT. Yet the OT Prophets had spoken of a time when God's redemptive plans, through Abraham's family, would be fulfilled, a time when God would make a new covenant, pour out his Spirit, raise up a messianic leader, reunite the 12 scattered tribes, establish his people in the land, glorify his own name etc (see, for example, Isaiah 40:1-5, 10-11; 43:5-11; 49:5-13; 52:1-10; 56:3-8; 61:1-4; Jeremiah 16:14-16; 29:14; 31:8-11; 32:37-42; Ezekiel 11:17-20; 28:25-26; 34:1-3, 5, 10-24; 36:19-28; 37:12-28; 39:25-29; Zechariah 8). The centuries leading up to the New Testament period did not see the fulfilment of the prophetic promises; Israel rather experienced the (often brutal) rule of one foreign empire after another. So many asked when would God act to fulfil his promises. When would God be faithful to his covenant with Abraham, and what was God to do if his own covenant people continued in the sin which led them into exile in the first place?
This story awaiting an ending was summed up, in some OT texts (see Psalm 33:4; Isaiah 40-55; Jeremiah 32:41; Lamentations 3:23 etc.), with the phrase 'God's righteousness', which thus brings us to the heart of Romans. God's righteousness was the hope of Israel as it awaited the fulfilment of God's promises. Yet, as we shall see, God's righteousness judgment, in the sense of impartial justice (e.g. 2 Chronicles 19:7; Proverbs 24:23; Acts 10:34; Galatians 2:6), was also the reason they went into exile in the first place (cf. Isaiah 50:1; Jeremiah 15:13-14; Daniel 9:15-16). This tension in God's righteousness generated difficult questions, exactly the sort Paul sought to address in Romans – albeit with a special Christian twist: the righteousness of God is revealed in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.
Let us then begin the journey into the letter itself and, as Karl Barth once described his experience of reading Romans, proceed with 'a joyful sense of discovery'.