Tuesday 14 March 2017

What Romans is not about! John Stevens

Romans – digging a foundation

Way back, not long after my family first plugged in a (black & white) tele and shortly after the last woolly mammoth strode across the South Downs, I ventured into the deep on board Calypso and its submersibles with the irrepressible and seemingly congenial Jacques Cousteau, care of BBC2 if I remember correctly?
This journey into Paul’s letter to Romans is similar. I want to take you on a dive. I’m not the expert so I’ve enlisted a few others. In other words I’ve read a few commentaries, mostly to get a feel for what is out there amongst the mostly protestant and evangelical authors who translate theology into print.
Here’s a list:
Douglas J. Moo – The Epistle to the Romans
Thomas Schreiner – Romans
Craig Keener – Romans
NT Wright – various but especially Justification and other website articles
Mark Reasoner – The Strong and the Weak
FF Bruce – Romans
The Normal Christian Life – Watchmen Nee
If I was to produce a heat map I’d say that Nee is closest to what I feel we need to hear but oddly at variance with what the letter actually addresses whilst NT Wright paints the picture for the setting of Romans really well. Moo and Schreiner are classic verse by verse commentaries, which is great if you have the time, but, if you’re interested I’d recommend getting your aqualung (Jacques Cousteau invented the aqualung by the way!!) and mask and float around their introductions – wood from trees. FF Bruce is good value and succinct, as is Keener, and Mark Reasoner has a very good surname!
Never one to miss the opportunity to mix a few metaphors – digging foundations and strapping on an aqualung…let’s teeter on the edge of the boat, spade in hand, and see what we find in Romans.
I have no doubt that you’ll see different sights that I will, but when we re-emerge up top, maybe we’ll convince each other that we’ve seen some things worthy of a pint or two at the Prince of Wales

What Romans Is Not About
The book of Romans is often viewed as the Everest of the NT as if Paul was pouring out the essence of the gospel, which he often calls ‘my gospel’, in the form of an apologetic containing dialectical passages resolved by the apostle as he builds his thesis and argument. It has especially become the treasure store for protestant theologians; seen almost a reference book containing summation texts often packed into dense single verses that encapsulate the gospel itself, for example: ‘all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God’ or ‘There is, now, no condemnation for those in Christ Jesus…’.


John Wesley had a powerful spiritual experience at a meeting on Aldersgate Street in London on May 24, 1738. He described the experience as having his “heart strangely warmed.” Wesley’s encounter with Jesus Christ on that evening was intense and personal. He later wrote, “I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone, for salvation; and an assurance was given me, that he had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.” Aldersgate was a pivotal moment in Wesley’s life right on the cusp of the Methodist revival. Wesley’s Journal entry for May 24, 1738 was Luther’s preface to Romans

John Wesley had been reading Romans.

Such has been the effect of Romans on so many including Wesley, Calvin, Luther, Knox that it is almost viewed as a treatise on personal salvation carefully expounding universal truths that can be applied to any individual in search of salvation. So much so that Romans is often seen to be synonymous with salvation theory or soteriology. This view often leads to the keenest minds reaching an apparent summit in chapter eight or twelve only to view the subsequent chapters as secondary or even irrelevant; the main arguments having been fully developed. After all in chapter eight we are faced with the ultimate destination of the whole creation – where does one go after that?

‘…the creation itself will be delivered from the bondage to decay into the glorious liberty of the children of God.’ Rom 8 v 21

Viewed this way Paul’s letter to the Romans could really have been written to any church by any apostle – it is universal and supplies sublime arguments that connect individuals with the destiny of the whole of creation. If so really it isn’t a letter to the church in Rome it is simply Paul setting out the fundamental truths of the gospel and the context into which he is writing is irrelevant. In fact, it is this irrelevancy that makes Romans all the more relevant to us as it is compendium of Christian theology available to anyone in any age rather than written to apply to a particular church in Rome passing through a particular set of historical and political times outside the church and circumstances within the church.

But can this really be why Paul wrote Romans? If it is, it almost suggests that Paul wrote this as a defence of his own apostleship; as if he needed to self-authenticate himself in their eyes.

It is likely that all believers have had their eyes opened to the riches of the gospel through its pages; but, if Romans 1-8 contains a carefully laid out soteriology disconnected with the particular circumstances in the church in Rome, it could easily be argued that the final seven chapters are merely closing comments, polite addendums, and if they were lost, the letter will hardly be diminished. More than this; do they really have a place in holy writ the as the inspired word of God? Putting bluntly if the first eight chapters are inspired, the final seven are less so.

The author, Paul, was an apostle charged with being a steward of the gospel, to bring the gospel to the gentiles, to all nations. The notion that this letter could have been sent to any church is unsustainable and I will attempt to dismantle this notion and to build a picture about the letter and the context into which it was sent; Rome and the church in Rome.

If Paul’s letter is not primarily a teaching epistle it is nonetheless unlike other epistles which, perhaps, are more clearly dealing with local issues that had arisen within specific churches. In his letters to the church in Corinth Paul’s perspective is that of a father whose dear immature children are incapable of resolving their own disputes:

‘And I brethren could not speak to you as to spiritual people but as to carnal, as to babes in Christ. I fed you with milk and not with solid food, for until now you were not able to receive it, and even now you are not able for you are still carnal. For where there are…divisions among you…are you not carnal and behaving like mere men?’ 3v1-3

The Galatian church had been infiltrated by false teachers who were successfully fooling the congregation into adopting Mosaic Law, and, specifically, preaching that Gentile believers should submit to circumcision:

‘…there are some who trouble you and want to pervert the gospel of Christ…let (them) be accursed…I could wish that those who trouble you would even mutilate themselves…’ 1v7,8 and 5v12.

Paul deals with Gnosticism in his letter to Colossians and false teaching concerning the last days when writing to the church in Thessalonica.

None of these letters dealing with specific local issues are bereft of sections of good solid teaching that can be applied across the church in all ages but the letters themselves had obvious focal points of pastoral concern. When Paul writes to the Ephesians however, he is let off the hook; he has no local pastoral or doctrinal problems to address, and Paul pours out a unique blend of the cosmic implications of the revelation of Christ and individual responsibility: ‘…the eternal purpose which He has accomplished in Christ Jesus our Lord…’ 3v11 ’I…beseech you to have a walk worthy of the calling with which you have been called…’ 4 v 1.

On the one hand Paul writes letters that to deal with specific pastoral problems that have arisen in the churches with which he has a fatherly relationship towards. Or, on the other hand, with churches with no immediate concerns, he delivers encouraging teaching consistent with the gospel that brought the church into being.

But in the letter to the church in Rome there are no false teachers to slay and the church, seemingly, is not dominated by problems due to immaturity i.e. genuine believers walking in the flesh and not by the Spirit. Nor is the church in Rome a church that would consider Paul as its spiritual father – the apostle that brought it into being. The origin of the Christian community in Rome is unknown and may well not have had an apostolic founding father.

It should be noted that it is thought that approximately half of the population of the Jews at the time were distributed around the Roman Empire; only half lived in Palestine. Travel was fluid. Paul was not the only Jew that travelled extensively across the Mediterranean world; Jesus had warned the scribes and Pharisees not to travel the world to make their disciples into sons of the hell (Matthew 23 v 15). In Acts chapter 2 we are given an insight into the international flavour of the pilgrims in Jerusalem for the feast of Pentecost; maybe some of these early converts had been the seed of the church in Rome. All we do know is that by the time Paul penned his epistle to the church in Rome a significant Christian community had formed and it contained Jews and Gentiles all of whom had placed their faith in Jesus as Messiah and Lord.

So why did Paul write this letter? If it isn’t a treatise simply outlining the truth of the gospel that could have been distributed to all churches what was in Paul’s mind as he wrote this letter specifically to the church in Rome?

Two Introductory articles by John Stevens first appearing here

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