Romans Part Three: Deep Dive
THE HITCHHIKER'S GUIDE ALONG THE ROMAN'S ROAD
| RYAN KERRISON
Thousands, upon thousands of books, articles, journals, blogs, commentaries, study notes, and lesson plans, have all been composed, with the same objective in mind. Offering helpful, often new and insightful ways of reading and interpreting the 6th book of the New Testament, Romans. The aim of this Deep Dive is to take a snapshot of some of the contemporary methods and criticisms. To offer a framework, to enable you to follow the arguments and complex rhetoric oft used by Paul, and to take some ephemeral ideas and perspectives and present them as a guide, or at the very least something to keep in mind while you continue your odyssey into the depths of Romans.
Paul drafted his 7100-word letter-essay with focused intent. That intention was to declare the Gospel, to articulate to the Church in Rome, as the new and central outpost of the Christian message, what Christ accomplished on the Cross, and what that might mean for them now. There’s covenantal language, Old Testament references everywhere, themes of Jewish history and narrative being fulfilled, political parallels are being drawn together. There is so much going on in Romans that it is critical that one read it with humility, and patience, but also confidence that the Holy Spirit will illuminate the sacred meaning of the letter, and provide an application for our lives today.
The basic breakdown of Romans is as such: Chapters 1-4, 5-8, 9-11, & 12-16, each section, building on the former while adding its angle and developments. One thing that is essential to recognise from the outset is the category of Greco-Roman literature one is dealing with in Romans. This category or genre is known as Diatribe. Diatribe is simply a style of writing “a conversational method in which the writer considers and answers hypothetical objections from opponents.”
In chapters 1 through 4 Paul focusses on the covenant faithfulness of God, he identifies the needs for salvation, by virtue of failing to give God the adequate glory, of which He is deserving. The sin of idolatry. Within these chapters, Paul provides a very politically relevant declaration of the Gospel and introduces the concept and illustrates the prophetic fulfilment of justification. The heart of this is Paul’s exposition of Abraham and the covenant made with him, by God.
In light of this provision provided for all who have sinned, in Chapters 5 through 8, Paul explores the notion of peace & reconciliation, both between God and humankind, and between Jew and Gentile, leading to a conclusion regarding “life” in Christ. The crucial verses contained here are, 6:1-23, 8:1-17, culminating in the triumphant confession of all true believers in Christ Jesus expressed in 8:31-39. Again, Paul is using Old Testament allusions, and quotations to reaffirm the centrality of the Jewish narrative to the otherwise Pagan society.
Pauls launches into Chapters 5 through 8 with some of the most recognisable passages contained within Romans; all centred on the result or effect that Christ’s death had in the world. Look carefully at the arguments Paul is making around what this ‘new creation’ circumstance means. Peace with God, reminiscent of Israel’s peace offerings of the Old Testament, the Passover themes, the substitution and emancipation ideas made available to those who believe! Finally, in chapter 8, described as the “inner sanctuary within the cathedral of Christian faith.” Exploding onto the scene with the now renowned, “Therefore there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus”, an outright declaration of the effects of the labour of Christ, and it's direct out working in the believer’s life. That being the transforming power of the Spirit, over and against the inevitable death brought about by the flesh. Have a look at the word “mind” (phronema) in 8:6 and what that entails. Additionally, many commentaries will provide an emphasis on what is known as a ‘merit theology.' (working for one’s salvation) whereas others will have a more ‘covenantal nomism’ (keeping the law for exclusive nationalistic and covenantal identity) approach. These are equally valid interpretations, and they both serve to display the complexity of Paul’s writing, and fortifies the importance of laying the historical groundwork before performing exegesis.
Drawing to a close in Chapters 9-11, some of the most challenging, contentious and controversial passages of Romans in which, Paul scrutinises the Law regarding Christ’s recent fulfilment and in particular the relationship with Israel to the Law. The question of election, and what that means looms large here, and rightly so. One would do well to examine the scriptures themselves before consulting commentaries during these passages, asking the Holy Spirit for guidance and illumination. Ben Witherington III and F.F Bruce offer some great work navigating these complex and oft misunderstood passages. Continuing, all the privileges previously enjoyed by the Jews under Law and how they failed in their faithfulness to God within this context and so God turned to the Gentiles for the time being, so that, as per Chapter 11, they may be grafted in to enjoy the present and future promises of God. Former New Testament scholar William J Webb’s Redemptive Movement hermeneutic is also a significant contribution to the discussion at this point.
Concluding with the final movement in Chapters 12 through 16 Paul, off the back of the previous section’s doxological Isaiatic reference, Paul turns his attention to providing the listeners with some guidance on what it is to participate in the ekklesia. He outlines part of what it is to be known as the body of Christ. This idea is echoed in his other epistles, in particular, Corinthians, Colossians, and Ephesians. Watch for the Levitical priest narrative that is present in Paul’s language involving service to one another and the pursuit of Christlike holiness. Chapter 15 is a common technique used by ancient orators and writers. Calling for the audience’s attention and then placing it firmly on an example of a figure; in this case, that figure is Christ. Once again, in Chapter 15:14-33, as has been a motif of the letter so far, Paul harkens back to the beginning of the epistle, (Chapter 1:8-15), emphasising his ministry for the Gentile both in Rome and beyond. Finally, in typical Pauline fashion, Paul sends his general greetings and conveys his plans to visit Rome. In the closing verses, he summarises his main thrust, which when read carefully, one can find close to the entirety of Paul’s longing for the church in Rome, which was an essential practice of rhetoricians of the time and a fairly traditional Hellenistic statement of doxology.
When reading Romans, one must be careful not to remove Paul from his historical context, but in the same breath, not to limit him there either. There is universal truth within this epistle, and there are context specific applications which when handled without care or applied with the incorrect intent will distort the truth. During your time in Romans read it holistically, read wide with regards to commentaries, do the work to research the genre and literary techniques, (if you are not sure how ask us!) Finally, above all seek the Holy Spirit and keep the Cross of Christ firmly in your grasp as you work your way through Romans.
Ben Witherington – Paul’s Narrative Thought World
Leon Morris - The Epistle to the Romans
Robert Jewett – Romans: A Commentary
Thomas H. Tobin – Paul’s Rhetoric in Its Contexts: The Argument of Romans