How To Make It Hard To Understand Romans
One of the reasons I wanted to do reflections in Lent on the second reading from the Daily Office Lectionary was because I saw that for most of the season it was working methodically through Paul’s Letter to the Romans. Romans is not my favourite letter by Paul – that would be First Corinthians, with Philippians close behind. Romans is challenging because it carries the weight of interpretation by Augustine, Martin Luther, and Karl Barth, and has been used to justify anti-Judaism, antisemitism, and supersessionism. It has been influential in debates about predestination and free will, law and gospel, and the authority of scripture. Karl Barth’s revolutionary commentary (more of a theological reflection than a true biblical commentary) created what others called neo-orthodoxy, in which the revelation of God in Christ “overthrows any attempt to ally God with human cultures, achievements, or possessions.”
Perhaps the most important essay on Romans in the past century is Krister Stendhal’s “The Apostle Paul and the Introspective Conscience of the West” (1963). Stendahl, originally from Sweden, taught at Harvard Divinity School and later became Archbishop of Stockholm in the (Lutheran) Church of Sweden. (Digression: – he and his wife retired to Cambridge, Massachusetts and he continued to be active in the Harvard community. Among other things they attended an early Friday morning Anglican Eucharist in the Harvard Divinity School Chapel, and I had the honour of preaching at one when I was student there in 2002-2003. Immediately afterwards the good Archbishop critiqued me, thinking I was just a little too ebullient for an early morning service!) Stendahl argues that Romans has been misinterpreted by everyone from Augustine on because they miss the rhetorical tools Paul uses, and psychologise him. When Paul is entering on a diatribe against someone the object of his speech is an imaginary locutor, not an actual person. For example, when Paul below turns to accuse “yourself a Jew” he is not imagining anyone in particular, but a hypothetical hypocrite who says one thing and does another. This was part of normal first century rhetorical practice, but by the fifth century and even more so much later this was missed by later Christians. At points in the letter Paul seems to be wrestling with his conscience – but, again, that is a rhetorical device, where he adopts a persona to bring out his point and perhaps speak to the situation of his hearers/readers. This was missed by later readers like Augustine and Luther, and as a result their exegeses of Romans went off on trajectories that said more about them and not so much about Paul or the message of Romans.
Let’s complicate interpretation even more. Martin Luther read the Pauline letters as distinguishing sharply between Law and Gospel, Judgement and Grace. Simply put, when God gave the Torah at Mount Sinai all people, both Jews and Gentiles, stood condemned by it, subject to eternal damnation. The Gentiles were damned because they were idolators, outside the covenant, and incapable of acting justly because of their idol-perverted minds. The Jews were condemned because no sooner did they receive God’s instruction than they ignored it, or brazenly defied it. When Jesus Christ came and died for our sins according to the scriptures the good news was proclaimed to both Jew and Gentile that if they accepted in faith that Jesus was Lord and had saved them that they would be spared eternal death, and instead would be raised up to new life like Jesus.
The problem with this is that there are several scholars say that this is a misreading of Paul, that Paul never put law and gospel into this kind of opposition, and that he believed that Torah observant Jews would receive the promises of God whether or not they accepted the good news. These scholars include several Jewish professors trained in the Talmud and who are reading Paul and the rest of the New Testament as non-canonical first-century Jewish literature.
A further issue is the influence of the Acts of the Apostles on the interpretation of Paul’s letters. The vast majority of scholars past and present have tried to fit Paul’s letters into the timeline described in Acts. The problem with this is that the letters are primary historical documents – kinda like your diary, or birth certificate, a recording of a speech, or a – wait for it – letter. Good historical method suggests that you should always go to the primary historical documents rather than secondary materials; it is better to write a history of Abraham Lincoln based on what he said and wrote and contemporary documents, and not rely on an oral history published in 1910. Acts is like that oral history, written many decades after Paul’s life and death. Logic suggests that one construct a timeline and history for Paul based upon the letters alone, and then carefully sift Acts through the sieve of that timeline. That is not what most people have done or continue to do, and so instead of discerning what Paul says in his letters, Acts is read into it and it prejudices the interpretation. One obvious difference is that Paul’s opponents in Acts are all non-Christian Jews, whereas in the letters it is clear that they are Jewish Christians originating from the church in Jerusalem.
There is also the fact of bias. The top-notch biblical scholars from the late Eighteenth Century up to the end of the Second World War – the folks who brought us the historico-critical method – were all male German Protestants, and while they thought they were being scientific and objective in fact many of them were profoundly biased, especially refusing to see anything positive about the Jewish roots of Christianity. They were in the thrall of Hegel, and so saw early Christian development as the unfolding of dialectic, thus prejudging Paul as an antithetical development to the work of Jesus (the myth that Paul invented Christianity). They read Lutheran theology into their biblical exegesis, not seriously considering alternatives. Being members of an educated elite paid by the government, they failed to see the subversive anti-Imperialism of the gospel proclaimed by Paul.
Finally, there is the assumption that Paul ‘s theology is well developed and coherent. However, my impression is that, although genuinely inspired, deeply steeped in the scriptures, and brighter than me, Paul nevertheless was making up a lot of his theology on the fly. We cannot blame him – he was the first significant writer in Christian history, and so he was the first to think about some of these things or to face the problems created by the gospel. Sometimes I think we need to be honest and say that although Paul did his best, theology has moved on.
Whether we like it or not these issues affect translations and the filters we bring when we try to read these texts. It does make reading Romans very hard.
All who have sinned apart from the law will also perish apart from the law, and all who have sinned under the law will be judged by the law. For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous in God’s sight, but the doers of the law who will be justified. When Gentiles, who do not possess the law, do instinctively what the law requires, these, though not having the law, are a law to themselves. They show that what the law requires is written on their hearts, to which their own conscience also bears witness; and their conflicting thoughts will accuse or perhaps excuse them on the day when, according to my gospel, God, through Jesus Christ, will judge the secret thoughts of all.
But if you call yourself a Jew and rely on the law and boast of your relation to God and know his will and determine what is best because you are instructed in the law, and if you are sure that you are a guide to the blind, a light to those who are in darkness, a corrector of the foolish, a teacher of children, having in the law the embodiment of knowledge and truth, you, then, that teach others, will you not teach yourself? While you preach against stealing, do you steal? You that forbid adultery, do you commit adultery? You that abhor idols, do you rob temples? You that boast in the law, do you dishonour God by breaking the law? For, as it is written, ‘The name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you.’
The first paragraph illustrates the problems. Are the Gentiles that Paul refers to all Gentiles in general, or Gentiles who have accepted Christ? Is the Jew Paul refers to in the second paragraph a Jewish Christian, or just an ordinary Jew? Are these real persons Paul is talking about, or rhetorical personages? Are Gentiles excused on the day of God’s judgement if they acted in accordance with the law written on their hearts? Paul seems to suggest that it is more than a technical possibility. Likewise criticises the Jew in the second paragraph for hypocrisy, but he would know many Jews who, like himself, had been blameless in the law (Philippians 3.6). How then does this fit with the grace of God and the faith of a believer?
These are all great, difficult problems. I hope to get deeper into them over the remaining days of Lent. We’re heading into a desert, folks, and we may be tempted, but God will help us through it and send angels to assist us!