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. McKnight’s big idea is that by reading Romans backwards (that is, by starting with chapters 12-16, then 9-11, then 1-8), we get a sense of what was going on in the world of the Roman house churches. We see that the theology laid out in Romans is not a systematic theology but a pastoral theology, or as McKnight would say, a lived theology, and we get a sense of the context behind this lived theology.
We started with chapters 12-16. We saw that the Roman church community was divided. The first believers in Rome were Jewish Christians who left when emperor Claudius ordered all the Jews out of Rome. These Jewish Christians, referred to as the “Weak” by Paul in this letter, returned to Rome during Nero’s time only to find the world of the Roman house churches transformed into an unrecognizable place, dominated by Gentile believers who saw no value in or necessity for Torah observance, called the “Strong” in this letter. This clash between the “Strong” and the “Weak” is what Romans was written to speak into.
Last week we looked at chapters 9-11. In the standard evangelical reading of Romans, chapters 9-11 are a weird outlier that no one really seems to know what to do with. But McKnight argues that chapters 9-11, far from being an outlier, are in fact the main point of Romans. A goodly portion of this passage is addressed to the “Weak”, the Jewish believers in the Roman churches, reminding them of the surprising nature of God’s gracious election and that right standing with God now comes through faith in Jesus Christ and not via observance of the Torah, and answering questions/concerns of the “Weak” that if this is the case then God has surely rejected Israel. Paul then turns to the “Strong” and admonishes them that they are not replacing Israel in God’s redemptive plan but instead their inclusion is an enlargement of Israel, so to speak, and they are therefore to embrace the “Weak” as brothers and sisters in Christ.
Now we come to chapters 1-4.
In the standard evangelical way of reading Romans, which views Romans as a universal theological outline of how salvation works for all people in all times and all places, chapters 1-4 would be outlined thusly:
–1:1-16: Introduction with thesis statement: The Gospel has the power to save everyone
–1:18-3:20: The whole world guilty before God, subdivided thusly:
–1:18-32 Gentiles guilty before God
–2:1-3:8 Jews guilty before God
–3:9-20 The whole world guilty before God
–3:21-29: The whole world saved the same way, by grace, via faith in Jesus Christ and not works
–4:1-25: Examples of how faith, and not works, saves
…One more way of saying this is that he presents bad news (1:18-3:20), the good news (3:21-26), and how to get it (3:27-4:25). This standard reading has a clear agenda: it universalizes the soteriology of Paul. It also removes the message from the social context sketched in Romans 12-16.
What Paul has in mind in Romans 2 might not be as clear as the universalizing approach thinks, but reading Romans backwards sheds light on the sweep from Romans 1:18 through the end of chapter 4. In fact, our approach leads to a more rhetorical reading of Romans 1-4 that unlocks the door to reading the whole of Romans more pastorally. (p 101)
McKnight sees Romans 1-4 not as a universal theological statement on the workings of salvation addressed to all people in all places and all times, but as something specific to the Roman congregation and the division between the “Weak” and the “Strong”, mentioned in previous posts. Romans 1:18-32 is not a blanket condemnation of the sinfulness of all humanity, or even of all Gentiles, but it instead echoes a stereotypical Jewish condemnation of Gentile sinfulness, one which is found all through the Old Testament prophets but which has particular resonance with Wisdom of Solomon chapters 13 and 14. As you read Romans 1:18-32, note the close similarities with these passages from Wisdom of Solomon:
For the worship of idols not to be named is the beginning and cause and end of every evil. (14:27)
But just penalties will overtake them on two counts: because they thought wrongly about God in devoting themselves to idols, and because in deceit they swore unrighteously through contempt for holiness. (14:30)
For all people who were ignorant of God were foolish by nature; and they were unable from the good things that are seen to know the one who exists, nor did they recognize the artisan while paying heed to his works; but they supposed that either fire or wind or swift air, or the circle of the stars, or turbulent water, or the luminaries of heaven were the gods that rule the world. (13:1-2)
Then it was not enough for them to err about the knowledge of God, but though living in great strife due to ignorance, they call such great evils peace. For whether they kill children in their initiations, or celebrate secret mysteries, or hold frenzied revels with strange customs, they no longer keep either their lives or their marriages pure, but they either treacherously kill one another, or grieve one another by adultery, and all is a raging riot of blood and murder, theft and deceit, corruption, faithlessness, tumult, perjury, confusion over what is good, forgetfulness of favors, defiling of souls, sexual perversion, disorder in marriages, adultery, and debauchery. (14:22-26)
As noted above, this is not a blanket condemnation of all human sinfulness as the most common human sins do not rise to the level of what is quoted here, or even of all Gentiles–in Romans 2:7-11 Paul speaks of other Gentiles who have taken a different path, with different results from what is described here. Instead, this is a uniquely Jewish critique of the worst excesses of Gentile sinfulness, which has resonance throughout the Old Testament texts and is intended to set up the rhetorical bombshell which goes off at 2:1.
Starting at 2:1, Paul specifically addresses the “Weak”, that is, Jewish believers in the Roman churches who believe that the path to moral transformation and inclusion in the family of God is through observance of the Torah, through a representative character called the “Judge”. The condemnation of 1:18-32 is intended to turn the rhetorical tables on this “Judge”, who does, in fact, condemn the Gentile world in those very terms. This “Judge” claims the privilege of having been elected by God and obtained right standing with God by a lifetime of keeping Torah. This “Judge” condemns Gentile believers in the Roman churches who do not keep Torah or see any necessity for doing so, in the belief that not keeping Torah leads inevitably to the path of destruction outlined in 1:18-32.
A contemporary version of the same thing: Evangelicals who condemn gays, gay Christians, and/or their sympathizers, in the belief that any accommodation whatsoever of the gay lifestyle (which we all know is flatly condemned by God as sin) will inevitably lead to the path of destruction outlined in 1:18-32.
Paul undercuts the judgmental attitude shown by the “Judge” thusly over the course of chapter 2: This “Judge” is hypocritical and just as sinful as the Gentiles he condemns (2:1-5). God is a truly impartial judge, and the ultimate goal is not having the Torah but living in the ways commended by the Torah. Both Jews and Gentiles are capable of doing this (2:6-16). Paul even goes so far as to relativize the rite of circumcision, the ultimate boundary marker separating Jews from Gentiles, claiming that the outward rite of circumcision is of no value whatsoever if it is not matched by inner integrity, that is, a “circumcision of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the written code” (2:17-29).
Chapters 3 and 4 continue Paul’s critique of the judgmental attitude shown by the “Weak” as personified by the “Judge”. These chapters address many questions and objections raised by Jewish believers, and the crux is in 3:21-24:
But now a righteousness from God, apart from law, has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.
Addressing the “Weak” and specifically the “Judge”, Paul makes the strong point that righteousness from God is apart from and independent of observance of the Torah. The standard evangelical interpretation of Romans universalizes this: We are saved through faith in Jesus Christ and not through good, meritorious works. Paul is teaching “sola fide” and what he is opposing is works-righteousness. We cannot earn our salvation by what we do, we must depend on what Christ has done.
This completely misses the point. This passage is addressed specifically to Jewish believers in the Roman churches–the “Weak”, as personified through the “Judge”–instructing them that their insistence upon Torah observance as the means of maintaining one’s good standing before God is not compatible with the Gospel message. The “works” Paul is discussing here are not general works of self-righteousness but the specific works of Torah observance by which Jews marked themselves off as separate from the Gentiles and in which the Jewish believers in the Roman churches trusted for their good standing before God.
Paul’s message for the “Weak” also included words that the “Strong” were intended to hear. This is indicated by Paul’s repeated use of the word “all”, bringing the “Weak” and the “Strong” together under sin and under the justification freely given by grace through faith in Jesus Christ. But first and foremost, Paul’s priority is for the “Weak” to grasp that Torah observance is not the heart of the matter when it comes to righteousness in Christ.
In reading Romans backwards, we are pressed to keep our eyes on the Weak and the Strong — that is, Jewish and gentile believers, not Jews and gentiles per se. We are pressed to keep in mind the Strong’s insensitivity to their privilege and the Weak’s judgment of the Strong’s moral scruples. This passage destroys the “privilege” of both: the Weak are sinners, and the Strong are sinners; both need redemption; that redemption will not come from Torah observance, and status in the church does not come by way of Torah observance or Torah nonobservance; and it does come from God’s gift — Christ on the cross, who secures atonement for all who believe, Jew or Greek. So, Paul is saying, “apart from works of the law,” to speak not to Jews in general but to the Weak in their particular problems with the Strong in the churches of Rome. (p 121)
As noted above, Paul’s intent in this section of Romans is not to build a case that all Gentiles and all Jews–and consequently, all humanity–are guilty before God in order to set up a universal teaching on how all can be “saved”. Paul’s intent is to utilize theology to dismantle the specific conflict between the “Weak” and the “Strong” of the Roman churches and place them both on the same footing regarding sin and regarding justification by grace through faith in Jesus Christ and not Torah observance.