Saturday, June 13, 2009

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'.


At 6/13/2009 5:56 AM, Anonymous Mike Koke said...

This sounds really interesting and I like the image of trying to help open the door for readers. It seems to me that by summarizing "the story" in your introduction, you are alerting your readers that you stress the historical continuity between Paul's Gospel and the OT narrative and Second Temple hopes, rather than seeing Paul as just working backwards from solution to plight in light of his apocalypse. Is that a correct assumption?

At 6/16/2009 6:44 AM, Anonymous Levi said...

I think this is a great brief introduction to the book of Romans. If I remember correctly, you had a very limited number of words that you were allowed. Great job.

At 6/19/2009 12:43 AM, Anonymous Mike W said...

Thanks Chris.
The only thing that jarred a little was the mixing of metaphors of 'doors' and 'Himalayas'. I knew what you meant, but I wonder whether there is another way of expressing the grandeur of Paul's theology in Romans that fits better with the doors/gates theme.

At 6/19/2009 7:48 PM, Anonymous Alex said...

Good stuff Chris. I especially like the paragraph recalling the story of Israel and their hope for the future. I was just reading the first few pages of von Rad's Genesis commentary through Amazon's preview feature and he points out how this recitation of their own story was an important feature of the Israelite community then. It continued in Acts as Stephen (I think it was Stephen?) repeated the story and carried it through Christ before he was martyred. This great longing of Israel for the righteousness/justice of God continues in the church today as we cry, echoing the martyrs under the altar in Revelation, "How long?" I'd love to read a commentary on Romans that kept this question always under the surface and it sounds like yours is going to do just that.

At 6/19/2009 8:57 PM, Anonymous Chris Tilling said...

Hi Mike,
I do see continuity yes, but interpreted in light of Christ. Does that make sense?

Thanks Levi and Alex for the encouragement.

Mike W, great point! Thanks for tha. Already sent off my short work on ROmans 1-8, but if I get it back for a second draft soon, it can be changed.


At 7/26/2009 12:09 PM, Anonymous Steven Carr said...

If people are looking at Paul and Romans and commentaries on the same, I was reading various commentaries on Romans, and had some questions that the commentaries did not seem to me to address.

Do you know please what Paul may have had in mind in the following passages?

Romans 3
What advantage, then, is there in being a Jew, or what value is there in circumcision? Much in every way! First of all, they have been entrusted with the very words of God.

Had it been an advantage to the Jews having Jesus live among them, preaching, teaching and working miracles?

If the Jews had been entrusted with the very words of God, who had been entrusted with the words of Jesus?

Romans 10
How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? 15And how can they preach unless they are sent?

Had any Jews heard of Jesus, in the mind of Paul, apart from through Christians preaching about him? Who does Paul think had sent Christians to preach about Jesus to the Jews?

Romans 15
For everything that was written in the past was written to teach us, so that through endurance and the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope.

Were the words and deeds of Jesus not the primary source of hope and encouragement for Jesus? Paul just quotes Psalm 69 ‘the insults of those who insult you fall on me’, rather than Jesus.

As though the scriptures gave hope because they were the source of knowledge of what had happened to Jesus.

Romans 16
Now to him who is able to establish you by my gospel and the proclamation of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery hidden for long ages past, but now revealed and made known through the prophetic writings by the command of the eternal God, so that all nations might believe and obey him

Had the Gospel been made known through the Old Testament prophetic writings? Had Jesus not come to earth so that all nations might believe and obey him, or was this belief supposed to come from the new way of reading the Old Testament, which now revealed the long hidden mystery?

On a general point, Romans is about how Jesus had changed the relationship between Jews and Gentiles, the Law and sin, between faith and salvation. Had Jesus said much that Paul thought was relevant to those topics?


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