Advent is the four weeks before Christmas. More precisely, it is three full weeks plus whatever fraction of a week is needed to get to Christmas. What we usually do around here at this time of year is pick an Advent-related topic and talk about it for four weeks.
This year we are going to work our way through Scot McKnight’s latest book, Reading Romans Backwards: A Gospel of Peace in the Midst of Empire.
Paul’s letter to the Romans can be a daunting challenge to many readers. Reading it straight through from beginning to end, one gets the feeling that Paul’s intent is to prep the believers in the Roman churches for a masters-level systematic theology exam.
Usually the best way to read Paul’s epistles is from start to finish. But the early chapters of Romans are so weighty that more often than not the reader is overwhelmed with exhaustion when he/she reaches the chapters at the end which provide context for all of the systematic theology in the early chapters.
Reading Romans forwards, beginning at 1:1 and closing the letter at 16:27, is both the best way to read Romans and its biggest problem. Reading Romans forwards often enough leads to fatigue by the time one gets to 9:1, and even more so by the time one arrives at 12:1. The impact of the fatigue is that the specific elements of the faith community in Rome as detailed in chapters 12 through 16 are ignored for how one reads chapters 1 through 8 or chapters 1 through 11. I am not proposing, then, that the right way to read Romans begins with chapter 12, but I do propose that a correction is in order and that fresh light can be thrown on chapters 1 through 11 by first taking a deep look at chapters 12-16, then 9-11, then 1-8 (since they work together in a special way).
In McKnight’s view, Romans is not about systematic theology, but about pastoral theology, or as he would say it, lived theology. So what are the issues in the Roman church communities that drive the theology Paul lays out in the early chapters? We can get an idea by starting with chapters 12-16. McKnight makes these chapters the focus in the first section of his book, which he entitles “A Community Needing Peace”.
Just a couple of decades prior, in AD 49, emperor Claudius had driven all the Jews, and specifically all the Jewish Christians, out of Rome. This event is alluded to in Acts 18:2. When these Jewish believers returned to Rome in the days of Nero, they returned to find the spiritual landscape of the Roman churches completely and totally unrecognizable. (Talk about a post-evangelical wilderness experience.) In their absence, Gentile believers rose to prominence and remade the congregations in their own image. A culture of non-Torah-observance formed, under the backing of Gentiles of high social status who reshaped the congregations in ways that were less than acceptable to the Jewish brethren. These two groups are the “Strong” and the “Weak”, to whom Paul refers throughout the letter. The “Weak” were predominantly Jewish believers who kept Torah, many of whom likely still attended synagogue, and were judgmental toward Gentile ways and culture. The “Strong” were predominantly Gentile believers, typically of higher social status, who had no history of keeping Torah, did not consider it necessary in order to follow Jesus, and looked down upon the Jewish believers who were mainly of lower social status.
In response to all these ills, Paul urges “Christoformity”. This is a big fancy word McKnight uses to describe the lived theology of Paul. Christoformity is basically what you think it is: the process of being formed and conformed in the image of Christ. This Christoformity works itself out in three primary ways: an embodied God orientation, which is everything the ancient world would have considered “religious”, an embodied Body-of-Christ orientation, which is God orientation lived out side-by-side with others, and a public orientation, which is how the embodied God and embodied Body-of-Christ orientations worked out in relation to the broader culture and the Roman empire in particular. The overarching principle of this public orientation is love.
…the central idea is Christoformity, and it is formed by an embodied God orientation, a Body-of-Christ orientation, and a public orientation. The fundamental core to Christoformity is that because you are in Christ, you are not to act according to Privilege and Power but instead to love God by offering your entire body daily to God, to live as siblings with all other Christians by welcoming one another and eating at the table with each other and indwelling one another, and to love your Roman neighbor as yourself with civility and intentional acts of benevolence. That, for Paul, is lived theology for the Roman Christians. That lived theology gave rise to Romans 1-11. Turned around, Romans 1-11 are designed to form the lived theology of Romans 12-16.