Global Bible Commentary (Nashville: Abingdon, 2005) pp. pp. 429-443

 

 

PAUL’S LETTER TO THE ROMANS

 

 Daniel Patte

 Vanderbilt University, Nashville, Tennessee, U.S.A.

 

 

Introduction

 

The Life-Context of the Interpretation

 

            I write this commentary as a French Huguenot and a white male who lives and teaches in the southern region of the United States after September 11, 2001. These contexts, separately and combined, frame my interpretation of Romans, even as my reading of Romans helps me to see them in a new light. By looking at these life-contexts in light of Romans, I see that the gospel proclaimed by Paul (Rom 1:16-17) reveals that anti-Semitism, racism, sexism, colonialism, imperialism and similar victimizations of others are rampant manifestations of the evil that God condemns (1:18-32; see also 2:1–3:9). The gospel also reveals the quandary in which we, Christians, are. To our shame, we often condone and participate in these evils, even as we self-righteously reject and condemn them (2:1-3).  However, by reading Romans with these contextual issues in mind I can envision how the gospel as “power of salvation” opens a way out of this impasse.

 

French Huguenots and Anti-Semitism during World War II: Our Dilemma in Light of Romans

 

I have vivid memories of my childhood during World War II, when I was learning from my parents to read the Bible as a Word to live by. I remember my fears of the German soldiers who occupied our village at the foot of the Alps in the South of France and who, for a while, camped in our farm. I also remember that, despite their proximity, worn- out visitors often came, stayed a few days in our home, and disappeared in the night. Later I learned that these were Jewish refugees desperately trying to escape the Holocaust, the Shoah, the systematic slaughter that engulfed six million European Jewish men, women, and children during World War II. The weary eyes of these refugees in our home remain with me both as signs of the mysterious presence of God’s chosen people among us and of the awful scandal that anti-Semitism is.

Heirs of Huguenots who endured centuries of persecution, my parents and our small congregations of the Reformed Church of France taught me that anti-Semitism is totally incompatible with the gospel of Jesus Christ. In our reading, the Bible, including the New Testament, teaches that Israel  is in an irrevocable relationship with God as the chosen people—a mystery we should contemplate in awe (11:25-36).

Yet, as I pursued my studies, I soon discovered that many readings of the Christian Scriptures propose anti-Jewish teachings that throughout history readily became the basis of anti-Semitic attitudes and deeds. I shivered when I recognized that it was this kind of “biblical” teaching that fueled the fire of the Holocaust. This massive, monstrous evil could not have taken place if, throughout Europe, a mass of Christians had not felt justified by such anti-Jewish teachings either to  participate directly in its perpetration or to give their tacit consent to it. Of course, for these Christians, murder of innocent victims was an evil that they condemned. But, for one or another well-intentioned reason (e.g. the security of their families), they ended up condoning and doing the evil that they did not want to do and that they hated (7:15-19).

 Unfortunately, we French Huguenots cannot claim to be exempt from complicity with this evil (cf. 3:23). Even as we helped a few of its victims, we ignored most of them. Against our best intentions we participated in this evil. The war-time sense of emergency twisted all our relations to others. Its logic unfolded quite innocently. First it required vigilance. In a state of emergency, was not vigilance against all possible threats to us and our families appropriate? Then our relation to those victimized by the worst of persecutions was warped. Their anxious eyes calling for compassion became the frightening reflection of a threat that we should urgently flee. Consequently, too often, instead of welcoming them as sisters and brothers in need, we turned away from them. By prudently and “innocently” making ours this war-time sense of emergency—a “natural” attitude, isn’t it?—we became active participants in the warped universe where the murder of millions of people was institutionalized simply because they were different—Jews, but also Gypsies, homosexuals, communists, and mentally handicapped people (another six million victims of the Holocaust).

 

Confronting Racism, Sexism, and Other Oppressions in the USA: Our Dilemma in Light of Romans

 

Teaching at Vanderbilt University both in the Department of Religious Studies and in the Divinity School I find the same ambivalence. I readily identified myself with the history of the Divinity School’s prophetic role during the civil rights struggle, and its clear “commitment to do all in its power to combat the idolatry of racism and ethnocentrism . . . (Bulletin of the Vanderbilt University Divinity School [2000-2001] 9).” This part of the mission statement of the Divinity School is carefully and realistically ambivalent. It is a definite commitment that faculty and students strive to implement. But it is also an acknowledgment of the limitations of this commitment.

The school does not claim to be free from racism, but “to do all in its power to combat” it. Why? Because the very claim to be free from racism would demonstrate that we fail to recognize that racism is a systemic evil in which one participates simply because it seems to be the normal or natural way of life, and that, as an individual, one cannot free oneself from racism. As the African-American novelist Alice Walker says, the best that people can do is to be “enemies of their own racism” (The Temple of My Familiar, p. 287). We who ostracize and marginalize others or who simply condone such victimization of others must assume responsibility for racism and strive to overcome this evil. But, how? Committing oneself to do so is important, yet it is not enough because, as Martin Luther King Jr. emphasized, the victimizers are themselves entrapped by racism. As Paul would say, racism is intertwined with all that is “holy and just and good” (7:12) in our way of life, including our good commitment to combat racism. Such is the predicament we face.

Paul helps us to clarify our confusing and confused situation. All of us are appropriately convinced that our usual way of interacting with others in family, in community, and in society is for the good of all those involved, provided that this order be respected. Our conscience confirms it (2:15). It gives us a “pang” whenever we stray from this way of life by hurting others rather than expressing love; by disrupting community life; or by transgressing the economic, social, political, and cultural order. For us, this is a good and necessary way of life that “promises life” (7:10)–including prosperity, security, and justice for all. For us, it is “holy,” a manifestation of God’s will, or in secular terms, the most reasonable and humane way of life. And so it is.

The problem is that this holy, just, and good American way of life is impregnated with racism. It gives birth to elitist attitudes that denigrate other cultures; to authoritarian laws that subjugate entire sections of the population (according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics [U.S. Department of Justice  http://www.ojp.usdoj.gov/bjs/prisons.htm], at the end of  2002 2,033,331 prisoners were in US prisons and jails [this is 25% of the prisoners in the entire world]; there were “3,437 sentenced black male prisoners per 100,000 black males in the United States, compared to … 450 white male inmates per 100,000 white males”);  to discriminatory social practices that marginalize those who are different; to an out-of-kilter workplace and a global economy where the gap between the rich and the ever-growing mass of the poor becomes wider and wider.

The problematic character of our way of life usually remains invisible to us. Yet, we readily recognize the injustice in other people’s ways of life. How could it be normal and appropriate (“holy, just and good”) for Christians of in the southern region of the USA to have an economic and social way of life that demanded the enslavement of people from African ancestry? Or more recently, the “Jim Crow” segregated way of life? Of course, because of their conscience, good Christians refused all abuses of this system, such as undue violence against slaves. Yet, racism and oppression remained embedded in their way of life.

For me, a European-American male living in the United States at the beginning of the third millennium, the question is: Are we not in the same situation? Are we not blind to the oppressive power intertwined with all that we hold to be good in our own way of life? Are we not contributing to these oppressions? Not only the voices of the victims of racism, but also of sexism, of homophobia, of religious exclusivism, of anti-Semitism, of colonialism, of neo-colonialism, and of imperialism (all of which the Vanderbilt Divinity School also denounces) should remove any doubts that these people are victimized by the very way of life that we take for granted.

Nevertheless, we give thanks to God for all the blessings that this way of life brings to us. Is it not appropriate to give thanks to God for food, secure family life, healthcare, education, a job, intellectual and cultural opportunities, travel and communication, and freedom to worship? Yes, it is. Is this thanksgiving self-centered and hypocritical? Of course, it can be. But in many instances it is not. We also give thanks for a way of life that brings all these benefits to many people who were deprived of them. Thus, through the filter of our conviction that our way of life is good, just, and a gift of God, we hear the cries of the victims of oppressions as if they were calling us to help them to share in this way of life and its benefits. Thus we commit ourselves “to do all in [our] power” to combat oppressions. But from the perspective of Romans, we have to ask: What resources will we use to combat oppression? Where do they come from? Is not this well-intentioned attitude similar to that of slave masters who, in response to the cries of their slaves, “generously” treated them more humanely with the resources generated by the slavery system that, in the process, was further reinforced and justified?

Again and again we find ourselves in the same quandary. Even as we strive to do good, we end up doing the evil we denounce and want to avoid (7:15-19). To his own cry of despair, “Who will rescue me from this body of death?” Paul responds: “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (7:24-25). How  does the gospel “rescue” us from our own racism, anti-Semitism, exclusivism, sexism, homophobia, colonialism, and imperialism? I bring this question with me as I read Romans for this commentary.

 

Contextual Comment

 

Overview: Paul’s Letter to the Romans and its Interpretations

 

Through the centuries Christian believers and preachers have read Romans in many different ways. Rather than resolving these divergences, biblical scholars seem to have exacerbated them. Scholars are sharply divided in three broad camps. Yet one can note that these groups use different critical methodologies in different life-contexts.

 

  • Forensic interpretations (often supported by “Lutheran” scholars) use philological historical-critical approaches to elucidate the theological argument of the letter—an argument that provides “forensic” evidence for the justification of the guilty (sinners) by the grace of God, the righteous judge, and through faith in Christ.
  • New Covenant interpretations—also known as those of the “new perspective” developed after World War II—depart from the preceding by using a combination of rhetorical and socio-historical analyses to read the letter as a discourse through which Paul seeks to persuade his readers to change their behavior, especially in Jewish-Gentile relationships. Through Christ’s faithfulness, the Gentiles are now in a covenantal relationship with God similar to that of the Jews.
  • Apocalyptic Gospel interpretations start with a more pessimistic post-World War II outlook, and use the methods of history of religions and structural studies to clarify the religious experience and symbolic world presupposed by the letter and characterized by convictions about the Gospel as the power of God for salvation from apocalyptic powers. In Christ and Christ-like people (from Abraham to “the body of Christ”), through resurrection-like interventions God defeats the powers of sin, death, and other evil.

 

These three kinds of interpretations, despite their radically different conclusions, are not in conflict. Each is legitimately grounded in the text. Each focuses on one of the three main textual features through which the letter affects its readers/hearers:

 

  • its theological argument, through which Paul conveyed to the Romans certain kinds of information—a theological knowledge—about the gospel he proclaimed; in a context where the guilt of individuals is prevalent, this theological argument can become the basis of a forensic teaching;
  • its rhetorical discourse, through which Paul attempted to persuade his readers—tried to establish their will—to change their behavior toward each other in their community and to support his mission to Spain (Rom 12–15); in a context where the prevalent problem concerns communities, and their respective relationship, this rhetorical discourse can become the basis of a covenantal teaching;
  • its religious discourse, through which Paul empowered his readers by sharing with them his deepest convictions concerning God’s power manifested in Christ, in the gospel, and in the believers’ lives; in a context where people are overwhelmed by the immensity of evil and feel totally powerless, this religious discourse helps them to recognize the Christ-like divine interventions in their present and empower them by the good news of the defeat of these apocalyptic powers.

 

Preachers should not be surprised that this letter conveys several messages. This is also the case with their sermons through which they simultaneously: convey knowledge (e.g., about a biblical text); exhort (influence their hearers’ will); and share their faith (or convictions). Even though each sermon gives priority to one of these three types of messages, all are necessarily present. Consequently preachers often find that their parishioners were most directly touched by an aspect of their sermon that they did not intend to emphasize, but that nevertheless challenged these persons or addressed their particular needs at that time. So it was for Paul. He could not communicate one of these messages without also communicating the two others.

 

One could ask: Which of these three was the primary intention of Paul? Scholars disagree and argue at length in favor of one or another. This debate is most helpful, because it clarifies the different messages of Romans. However, we do not need to reach a firm conclusion. It is enough to recognize that Romans carries these three kinds of messages and that each of them challenges and/or addresses the needs of different people at different times. The question is not: Which one of these three types of interpretation is truly grounded in the text? All are. The question is: Which of these messages is the most helpful in order to address the contextual issues raised above?

 

1. The Theological Argument of Romans: Are Anti-Semitism, Racism, and Other Oppressive Attitudes Due to a Lack of Knowledge of the Gospel?

 

Paul’s clarification of his particular understanding of the gospel was necessary, because he did not have a personal relationship with the Roman church (1:13; 15:22). In Galatia and Corinth, there had been many controversies due to misunderstandings regarding the teaching of the “apostle to the Gentiles,” especially on the part of Jewish Christians. Thus, Paul needed to clarify his teaching before asking support from the Romans for his forthcoming missionary activity in Spain (15:23-24). From this perspective, the primary message of the letter is its theological argument that clarifies the logic of the gospel for both Gentile and Jewish Christians in Rome.

The “Jews” (Jewish Christians), whom Paul addresses directly in 2:17, 7:1, and, according to this interpretation, also in 2:1, are composite figures that Paul constructed out of the actual Jewish Christians who misunderstood his teaching in other churches—including “the saints” in Jerusalem whom he plans to visit (15:25-27). Similarly, the Gentiles , whom Paul addresses directly in 1:5-6, 1:14, and 11:13, are a construct of Gentile Christians who misunderstood his teaching in other churches. Paul’s other letters, especially Galatians, are therefore most helpful for understanding Romans.

There is a broad consensus regarding the overall interpretation of Romans from this perspective. I present below a reading of Paul’s teaching in Romans already found in Bultmann, and still in Fitzmyer and Stulhmacher. Beare’s outline summarizes it well (Beare 115-121; note his vocabulary; words between square brackets are mine).

 

            I.          Introduction, 1:1-15

<![if !supportLists]>II.                 <![endif]>Main theme: the gospel of salvation [the justification of sinners], 1:16–8:39. The universal need of salvation, 1:18–3:31 (guilt of the Gentiles, 1:18-32; equal guilt of the Jews despite their knowledge of the Law, 2:1–3:8; sin and guilt are universal, 3:9-20; the grace of God brings deliverance through Christ to all who believe, 3:21-26; no place is left for human pride in moral achievement, 3:27-31); the testimony of Scriptures: Abraham’s faith counted as righteousness, 4:1-25; the new relationship with God through faith, 5:1-21; life under grace: deliverance from sin and law, 6:1–7:25, and life in the Spirit, with the assurance of God’s love, 8:1-39.

<![if !supportLists]>III.               <![endif]>Subsidiary theme: the faithfulness [or righteousness] of God and the failure of Israel, 9:1–11:36. Problem: Has God failed to fulfill his promises to Israel, since the blessings of the gospel are being received chiefly by Gentiles? No. God’s promise was not made to all the Israel of natural descent (9:1-13); God’s will is not subject to human challenge and has always included Gentiles (9:14-29); the cause of Israel failure is the effort to establish their own righteousness through the law (9:30–10:4); testimony of scriptures (10:5-21); the failure of Israel has brought salvation to the Gentiles, but it is not final (11:1-36).

<![if !supportLists]>IV.              <![endif]>Ethical instructions: the law of love, 12:1–15:13. Appeal for dedication to God (12:1-2); life in the body of Christ for the service of all (12:3-13); love of enemies (12:14-21); obedience due to civil authority (13:1-7); love, the sum of all commandments (13:8-10), acknowledges the right to differ and calls for self-denial following the example of Christ (14:1–15:13)

<![if !supportLists]>V.                 <![endif]>Conclusion and travel plans, 15:14-33.

 

This interpretation is called “forensic” because it emphasizes the metaphor of a court of justice in passages about God’s judgment (2:2-16; 3:6-7; 5:16; 14:10) of sinners who deserve God’s wrath (1:18, 2:5, 2:8, 3:5, 9:22, 12:19, 13:4), but who are acquitted or justified through faith in God’s grace manifested in Christ (3:21–5:21). The gospel is both the revelation of the sinfulness of all—prompting guilt and hopefully repentance—and the good news that through Christ sinners are justified, freed from guilt, if they believe. Justification through faith is understood as the deliverance from the guilt that individual sinners have; it frees them for a life under grace and in the spirit (6:1–8:39) in which they can have a proper moral life governed by love, rather than a life determined either by sinful human nature or by their (cultural, social, and political) environment (12:1–15:13; Beare 121). Thus understood the gospel also explains God’s righteousness (or justice). Those who, like the Jews, deceive themselves by thinking that they can rely on works of the law to escape God’s condemnation are sinners like any other sinner. God would be just in condemning them. But God’s justice has been satisfied through Jesus’ death, and this good news is also for the Jews; by believing this good news, they will also be freed from their guilt and from their fear of the wrath of God.

 

Contextual Implications

 

In many life-contexts, especially when individuals are heavily burdened and paralyzed by guilt, the teaching based on this reading of Romans is most helpful. The gospel is the good news that all (Jews and Gentiles, church-going and non-religious people) have been forgiven by God. This forgiveness has been achieved through Christ’s death on the cross, for all sinners—while believers were still sinners and enemies of God (5:8-10,19). Though all deserve God’s condemnation, God lovingly welcomes them despite their sins. Through our faith, we have the assurance of salvation and are freed from guilt and fear of divine judgment and death. This is good news indeed.

When we feel guilty and ashamed by our racist, anti-Semitic, sexist, or oppressive deeds, this teaching addresses some of our needs. But it does not show how the gospel “rescues” us from our racism, or other oppressive inclinations. Actually, this teaching could mislead us into thinking that everything is resolved when we discover we are forgiven. In fact, nothing is resolved (see Tamez). People around us continue to be hurt and to die as a result of our racist, anti-Semitic and/or oppressive ways of life. The unending cycle of violence remains, and we are caught in it, still contributing to it—as an abusive husband begs for forgiveness from his wife for hurting, is forgiven, but, again and again, needs to beg for forgiveness. Hopefully, another  dimension of Romans offers a teaching that can better address our predicament.

 

2. The Rhetorical Discourse of Romans: Are Anti-Semitism, Racism, and Other Oppressive Attitudes Due to Arrogance?

 

The Letter to the Romans is also a rhetorical discourse through which Paul hopes to convince the Romans to change their behavior toward each other in an integrated church that includes Gentile and Jewish members and toward outsiders, including Roman authorities. This is what Stowers and Gager underscore each in his own way, as they prolong Stendahl’s insightful questioning of the forensic interpretation. I affirm the legitimacy of their interpretation, but against their suggestion I want to emphasize that this does not exclude the two other interpretations; yet we should not collapse them into a single interpretation (as Dunn appears to do).

I primarily present Stowers’s interpretation, although I allude to other scholars in this group.

The rhetorical goal of Romans is easier to see by first considering its conclusions: four chapters of exhortations and ethical teachings (12–15).

In chapter 15, it is clear that Paul hoped to persuade the Romans to support his mission to Spain (15:23-24) and to heed his exhortations, at times expressed in very strong terms (15:15). He has “admonished them,” as he expects them to “admonish each other” in a good and responsible way (15:14; “instruct each other” [NRSV] is too mild). Similarly, the goal of 14:1–15:13 is to transform the way “the strong” and “the weak” interact. It is appropriate for the Romans to admonish each other for mutual correction and for “building up” the character of “the weak” (15:2). Yet they should do so appropriately. Instead of despising as superstitious those who are weaker and condemning them (14:1-4, 10-12), they should welcome them as God welcomed them by adapting their behavior to meet the need of the weak (14:13–15:2). As Christ “did not please himself” but “has become a servant” to the Jews in order to confirm the promises given to the Patriarchs about the gentiles (15:1-12), so “the strong” should adapt themselves to the varied needs of “the weak.” In sum, Paul’s goal is to bring the Romans to abandon the Greco-Roman practice of mutual correction that includes shaming the weak for their weaknesses. Instead, they should adopt a practice of mutual exhortation that follows “the model of Christ’s adaptability to the needs of others” (Stowers 41, 320-23). This is the way to empower the weak (15:2).

By the end of his discourse, Paul is confident that his readers will change their behavior, because they are now enabled to follow the model of Christ (15:14).

What is the root of the problem that Paul’s rhetorical discourse helps his readers to overcome? Most generally, arrogance: the arrogance of “the strong” toward “the weak” (14:1–15:13); the arrogance of the Gentile Christians toward the Jews who do not believe in Jesus as the Christ (11:13-25); the arrogance of the imaginary Jewish teacher with “his condescending pride in teaching gentiles to observe works of the law (3:7, cf. 2:17-20, 23)” (Stowers 38; see also 2:17–4:22); the arrogance of the imaginary person (a Gentile, in this reading) who condemns others (2:1-4; cf. 2:1-16); and, I add, the arrogance of the (Gentile) sinners who claim to be wise (1:22) even as they commit all kinds of sin (1:18-32). Arrogance is a belief that one has self-mastery and that others do not have it, and thus a belief that one needs to help others to gain the same self-mastery that one has.

Paul’s teaching is that those who are arrogant and judge others actually lack character, self-control and self-mastery, because like the others (2:1-2) they are dominated by passions (1:18-32) or sin as desire (7:7-25).

 How does the gospel overcome this arrogance? In its entirety, this letter as rhetorical discourse is addressed to the Romans as Gentiles. This is explicit in 1:5-6 and 13-15, and it is clarified by the recognition that, following common practices of the diatribe, Paul enlivens his discourse by addressing imaginary people—including Gentiles in 2:1-16, and a Jewish teacher from 2:17 to 4:22. “Romans tries to clarify for gentile followers of Christ their relation to the law, Jews, and Judaism” (Stowers 36), a relation that has been vitiated by arrogance on all parts. If one wants to escape condemnation by God, self-mastery is the goal to be achieved, as Greco-Roman Gentiles think. Indeed, Gentiles can be expected to condemn the sinners enslaved to passions and desire (1:18-32), as they do according to 2:1-2; but they should not condemn others, because they are in the same situation (2:1-16).

Gentile followers of Jesus might think that becoming a Jew by fulfilling the law, as the imaginary teacher teaches, will provide them with all what they need to overcome sin (passion and desire) and thus to be in  right relationship with God and to have self-mastery. But this is an inappropriate understanding of the relationship between Jews and Gentiles—all are sinners (2:17–3:9). Thus, still in the diatribe style, Paul conveys that: “The [imaginary Jewish] teacher needs to understand that in the present moment God is effecting his just solution not through the Jewish law (3:19-21) but in the gentile mission based on Christ’s faithfulness (3:22-26)” (Stowers 37). Stowers (as well as Elliott and other scholars) translate 3:22: “God’s righteousness has been manifested through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ for all who are faithful.” The faithfulness of Jesus Christ is comparable to that of Abraham, who is the ancestor of both Jews and Gentiles (4:1-25). Gentile followers of Jesus must imitate Christ’s faithfulness; this is what having faith is all about. As “Christ adapted himself to their need, dying for them as they were ungodly (5:1-11)” (Stowers 38), so Gentile believers must reenact his death and resurrection in baptism (6:2-11). In the process of dying to self they are freed from the dominion of sin and of passions (6:12-14), they receive self-mastery. This freedom applies beyond baptism as well. The enslavement to desire and passion described in 7:7-23 is overcome through Christ who adapted himself to the believers’ needs and through the Spirit that empowers them to be faithful as Christ was (ch. 8). Consequently, Gentiles share in Christ’s privilege and relationship with God as son (8:15-23, 29), a kinship with God that Israel always had (9:4).

Gentile believers are then in a position to understand the mysterious way God deals with Israel and Gentiles (9–11). This is the mystery of God’s adaptation to the needs of Gentiles, and this without denying the covenant and promises to Israel (11:13-36). Acknowledging this mystery of God’s faithfulness (11:25, 33-36) is the condition for Gentiles to be free from their arrogance toward the Jews (11:17-18), and then to be free to imitate Christ’s faithfulness.

What is this faithfulness by which the Romans as Gentile believers should live? It involves giving one’s body in living sacrifice as Christ’s did (12:1-2). Paul admonishes the Romans to make Christ’s faithful adaptability to the needs of others, love, the basic principle for their life in a diversified community (12:3-13; 14:1–15:13) and  in relationship with outsiders (12:14–13:7). This love fulfills the law and frees Christ’s followers from the flesh and its desires (13:8-14). Thus the Romans should admonish one another, and build up the character of the weak (still enslaved by their weakness), by adapting themselves to the needs of the weak, as Christ did.

 

Contextual Implications

 

When the rhetoric is viewed as its most significant dimension of the letter, the issue is no longer guilt, but rather arrogance. Arrogance consists in “generously” wanting to help others to become like oneself, because one views oneself as better than others—an attitude related to the honor-shame code of Greco-Roman culture (see Jewett). Through its forceful rhetorical presentation of the gospel, the letter seeks to overcome the believers’ arrogance vis-à-vis less mature Christians and outsiders.

In Paul’s time, the letter strove to overcome the arrogance that believers in Christ from Jewish and Gentile origins had toward each other and toward Jews, through admonishments and exhortations—parts of character formation and of sanctification. It is a matter of changing the will of people who have an inappropriate, deficient, or weak will. Paul emphasizes, from beginning to end, that this character formation is mutual (1:12 and 15:14): members of the church need to exhort, encourage, comfort, instruct each other, as Paul himself expect to be exhorted and supported by the Romans (1:12 and 15:30). Arrogance is not a proper way to exhort others; rather one must imitate Christ and “adapt themselves to the needs of the weak.” This is what Paul did with the Romans, adapting himself and his discourse to their needs—by entering their way of thinking regarding the importance of character formation (as Stowers argues).

This kind of teaching about mutual support is much needed today for individualistic Christians in the Western world who forget that they need the support of a community to progress in their faith journey, and also for those Christian communities in which exhortation and encouragement have lost their mutual character and have become arrogant.

At first, this teaching also seems to address the problem of racism and the similar problems of sexism, colonialism, and imperialism. Is not arrogance (because of one’s race, gender, or social, economic, and cultural status) the root of each of these problems? Yet, for the victims of racism, sexism, or colonialism, the second part of this teaching—the exhortation to adapt themselves to the need of others—is suspicious. They have too often offered their bodies in living sacrifice (12:1-2) and been abused in the process. Furthermore, the exhortation to the “strong” to adapt themselves to the needs of the weak is fine when true reciprocity is possible—among members of a community of equals. But this attitude reinforces racism, sexism, and colonialism when it is practiced in a relationship where mutuality cannot be truly envisioned, because this relationship is primarily characterized by inequality.  In such cases, the weak—people from other races, religions, gender or cultures—are like children who need to be kindly instructed and taken care of by condescending strong people—for instance, by well-intentioned, white male European Christians. When this teaching is applied outside of a community of equals, it is part of the problem, rather than the hoped-for solution.

Ultimately this teaching cannot truly address our predicament, because racism and other oppressive attitudes are not a matter of will. The weakness of the victims of racism and oppression is not due to a lack of will (for example to their so-called “laziness” or slothfulness!). It results from oppression. Conversely, oppressors remain oppressors even when they are well-intentioned, with the right kind of will.

The evil of racism and of oppression is due neither to a lack of knowledge (e.g. of God’s love) nor to a wrong will (e.g. arrogance); it is a matter of power that entraps both the perpetrators and the victims of racism and other oppressions. Hopefully, another dimension of Romans involves a teaching about the way the gospel can rescue us from our own racism, anti-Semitism, or other oppressive drives.

 

3. The Religious Discourse of Romans and Paul’s Convictions: Anti-Semitism, Racism, and Oppressive Attitudes as Signs of Bondage to Evil Powers Overcome by the Gospel as Power of God for Salvation

 

A condition for the effective communication of a religious message—concerning the knowledge about the gospel of justification through faith (first reading) or the will to abandon their arrogance and to be faithful followers of Christ (second reading)—is that this message also convey a clear sense of the preacher’s convictions. In his letter to the Romans, Paul also shares his deepest convictions regarding God’s role in the world and in the believers’ experience.

This most religious dimension of Romans is often overlooked, because it is diffuse and difficult to apprehend. We miss Paul’s convictions if we ask either “What is the central theological point of this letter?” or “What rhetorical effect does it seek to achieve?” Paul’s convictions are neither found at the center of his argument nor in the trajectory of his discourse, because they provide the symbolic universe in which this argument and discourse take place and make sense. The appropriate questions are: How is Paul’s symbolic universe constructed or structured? What religious symbolism is he using? How is it related to Hellenistic religions (see Schweitzer and other “historians of religions”)? To Pharisaic and early Rabbinic Judaism (see Davies and Sanders)? To Apocalyptic Judaism (see Käsemann and Beker)? To the symbolism of the Roman Empire (see Elliot)? What are the theological oppositions emphasized in the letter (see Patte)?

The latter question is helpful to locate Paul’s convictions, because the believers’ convictions are self-evident truths that are like the air they breathe. As we desperately gasp for air when our air supply is threatened, so, when our convictions are threatened, we emotionally affirm them by denying that we believe something else—setting up theological oppositions. When we consider these oppositions in Romans, it soon appears that Paul’s symbolic universe should not be envisioned as a building with walls that separate an outside, the world, from an inside, the church. Paul’s symbolic universe is better envisioned as a powerful movement that sweeps through the entire world and creation, transforming them as it conquers them. In this brief commentary, it is enough to examine three kinds of “figures” which, as implicit metaphors, express both what the gospel is like and unlike: political Roman figures, Jewish eschatological figures, and Jewish apocalyptic figures.

 

The Gospel as Inverted Imperial Conquest

A part of the Letter to the Romans appropriately represents the gospel as an inverted imperial conquest. The proclamation and spreading of the gospel of the Lordship or Dominion of Jesus Christ is like—and unlike—the proclamation and spreading of the good news of the lordship or dominion of the Roman emperor. Like the Roman Emperor, Jesus Christ is Lord (1:4). The task of the servants of this Lord, Paul (1:1) and the entire body of Christ (12:11), is to bring to the “obedience of faith” (1:5) the Gentiles and the barbarians (1:14) and to overcome evil (12:21) by putting on the armor of light (13:12), that is, by putting on the Lord Jesus Christ (13:14). This is just as the Roman legionnaires put on their armor and overcome evil in the name of the Lord Caesar by bringing order, security, and peace (the Pax Romana) for the good of all people (13:3-4), by forcing people into subjection by the power of the sword (13:4-5), but also and primarily by bringing people to the “obedience of voluntary submission”—the meaning of the phrase “obedience of faith” (1:5)—to Roman authority. The gospel is the good news concerning the establishment of the empire of God through the voluntary submission (faith) of people to the Lord Jesus Christ and to God. In this sweeping imperial conquest of the Lord Jesus Christ, the Roman authorities are themselves subjected to the authority of God’s empire; indeed, they are servants of God (13:4). God’s empire is also established with “power,” but, unlike Roman imperial power, the power of the Gospel is manifested in offering oneself in living sacrifice for others (5:8-10; 12:1-2).

 

The Urgency of the Gospel’s Imperial Conquest

The gospel’s imperial conquest encompasses the entire inhabited world—from Jerusalem to the Adriatic Sea (Illyricum, 15:19), and in between, Asia Minor and Greece (Macedonia and Achaia, 15:25-26), to Rome and to Spain (15:24), the end of the (known) world.

For Paul, this conquest of the entire world is all the more urgent because  this is the time of the end (the eschaton): when God sends the Messiah, the Christ Jesus (1:1), and fulfills the prophecies of Scriptures (1:2); when the resurrection from the dead has already begun with the resurrection of Jesus (1:4); when the Spirit of God, through the resurrection, establishes Jesus as “Son of God with power” (1:4) and transforms believers into children of God (8:14; see 8:9-17), and will soon transform the rest of creation (8:18-23), since the time of salvation is near (13:11). In sum, for Paul it is “self-evident”   that with the coming of Christ and his resurrection the end-time (the eschatological time) has begun. This basic conviction is confirmed by the transformative work of the Holy Spirit and of the resurrected Christ in the believers’ experience, who repeatedly rescue them from their sin (or “take away their sins”).

Paul’s symbolic universe is also apocalyptic, in the sense that the envisioned end-time is marked by the struggle between the power of God and Christ and the powers of evil—including “powers,” “rulers” (on high, under the earth, or in life), and death (8:38-39). This is the time of God’s judgment when God’s wrath is manifested against all wickedness and ungodliness (1:18). The gospel is “the power of God for salvation” (1:16). Even though the final victory over evil is still to come, some of the powers of evil are already being defeated, including “sin” as a power that enslaves people (3:9). Sinners are overwhelmed by “desires” to which they have been abandoned by God (1:24; see 1:26, 28); they are possessed by all kinds of evil (1:29); thus, even if they “know” what is good to do and “want” to do it, they end up doing evil because they are possessed by sin and under its power (7:18-20).

 

Contextual Implications

 

This apocalyptic view, with its emphasis on sin and evil as powers that enslave us, makes sense when speaking about anti-Semitism, racism, sexism, and other oppressive attitudes. Despite our best intentions (against our will) and despite our efforts to avoid these attitudes that we know to be wrong and evil, these oppressive attitudes dwell in us (7:18), possess us, and enslave us (7:14). Sin brings about not only our own destruction (death, 1:32; 7:10-11) but also the destruction of others and of all aspects of life in relation to  others (1:24-31). Thus, it is indeed good news to hear that the gospel “is the power of God for salvation” (1:16), that is, the power through which we can be freed from slavery to sin, or from all its destructive effects on individuals and communities.

While sin as guilt and condemnation (the focus of the first reading, above) has been overcome once and for all by Jesus’ death instead of sinners (e.g., 3:25; 8:1), sin and other evil powers are still at work in Paul’s present and in our present. People, including Christian believers, are still in bondage to these powers. The dictum, “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (3:23), still apply to them. Every day there are new victims of anti-Semitism, racism, sexism, imperialism, and other oppressive attitudes, and Christian believers are among the oppressors. Therefore, Paul’s cry in 7:24 is also that of any Christian believer: “Who will rescue me from this body of death?” Who will rescue me from  bondage to these evil powers?

 

The Gospel as Power of Salvation: 1) What Is the Power of Sin?

 

The power of sin remains a reality for Paul, the apostle. Day after day, like everyone else, Paul needs to be rescued from manifestations of the power of sin. But Paul also expresses his conviction that his cry for help (7:24) is answered: “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord” (7:25). God, through the resurrected Christ, his power (1:4) and the Spirit (8:1-39) saves people from these powers of evil. This is “the power of God for salvation” (1:16), the gospel as a process that will be ongoing until all God’s enemies, including death, are defeated (1 Cor 15:24-26).

How are believers rescued from these powers of evil by the gospel? Paul’s convictions on this central point become apparent in the numerous theological oppositions of chapters 1, 7-8, and 12.

In 1:18-32, the powers of evil to which people are abandoned by God are those of “coveting desires” (epithymia, 1:24, NRSV “lusts”; same word in 7:8, NRSV “covetousness”), “passions” (1:26) and “warped mind” (1:28). Paul’s reference to idolatry is most helpful, provided we note the unexpected way in which he presents it. Three points are essential.

 

<![if !supportLists]>1)                          <![endif]>For Paul, idolaters are people who have received a true revelation from God in creation: a revelation of God’s “eternal power and divine nature” recognizable in the creation (1:19-20). This true revelation (1:21) is partial (it is not complete since it does not include, for instance, the revelations to Israel and in Jesus Christ).

 

<![if !supportLists]>2)                            <![endif]>Far from ignoring or denying this revelation, idolaters are obsessed by it and absolutize it. They view this partial revelation as the complete and final revelation; they worship the creatures instead of the creator (1:23), the manifestations of this revelation rather than the mysterious God toward whom they point. This delusive absolutization comes from a warped, darkened mind (1:21-22, 28) made foolish by deeply rooted desires to own, possess, and control this divine revelation—“coveting desires” (1:24, 7:7-8) to possess what does not belong to them.

 

<![if !supportLists]>3)                            <![endif]>Idolaters are then trapped into their idolatry, as a manifestation of God’s wrath (1:18, 24, 26, 28). The more they strive to worship God, revealed to them in creation, the more, in their obsession for this revelation, they end up worshiping the creation, and thus an idol (1:23). The more they welcome God’s good gifts of human relations—sexuality (1:24-27), community relations (1:28-32)—the more their obsession and passion transform these good gifts into self-destructive and oppressive behavior.

 

Paul underscores in Romans (and Galatians) that his own experience as a Jew is similar to that of Gentile idolaters.

 

<![if !supportLists]>1)      <![endif]>The true revelation and gifts the Jews have received from God include the covenant, the irrevocable election as children of God, Torah (the law which is holy, just and good, 7:12), the promises and oracles of God, worship (3:1-2; 9:4-5; 11:28-29).

 

<![if !supportLists]>2)      <![endif]>Far from hypocritically ignoring and denying this revelation, Jewish believers have a great “zeal” and “fervor” for God (10:2); they follow the Law/Torah with the conviction that, as promised, it will bring life to them (7:10). But because their zeal is obsessive (“not enlightened”), they have absolutized the Law/Torah, viewing it as “the” way to righteousness (instead of being open to the righteousness that comes from God, 10:2-5).

 

3)  Like any idolater, they are then trapped, destroyed, and killed by their obsession for this revelation. Sin deceived Paul the Jew through the law (7:12). The more he wants to do God’s will, the more he does the evil he hates, including idolatry, i.e., viewing as an absolute what is not (7:15-23).

 

Such is the story of all religious persons who view what they have received from God as the complete and final revelation. This applies to arrogant Christians (Rom 11 and 13-15; see the second reading), who obsessively view their particular understanding and practice of the gospel as the complete and final revelation that everyone should adopt.

 

The Gospel as Power of Salvation: 2) Being Freed from the Power of Sin

 

The way out of all these obsessions passes through the recognition that the revelation or gift one has received from God is not the complete and final revelation. (“For now we see in a mirror, dimly… Now I know only in part” 1 Cor 13:9-12). But how can we be freed from our obsessions about the revelation or gift we received from God?

Paul answers: through the gospel as “power of God for salvation” (Rom 1:16). Is this a divine lightening-bolt through which idolaters and arrogant believers are shocked out of their obsessions? Paul surprises us: this powerful salvation is through a revelation of God’s righteousness “from faith to faith” (1:17au.), i.e., transmitted from believers to believers. This seems strange (so NRSV translates “through faith and for faith”) until one recognizes two things: receiving a revelation from someone else involves acknowledging that the revelation one has is not complete or sufficient; and encountering unexpected manifestations of God in other persons or groups (such as Jews or Gentiles) transforms us (12:2).

The liberating power of the gospel is at work for someone when that person acknowledges the truth of the different revelations and divine gifts that others have received and manifested; that is, when one encounters the Presence of God as manifested in the different experience of these others—in their otherness.

For Paul this power of the gospel is at work in the “body of Christ.” Each Christian believer has received “a measure of faith” (not the whole of faith, 12:3). Consequently, each should acknowledge the different “gifts” (charismata) that others have received from God (12:6) and be open to benefit from them. Being part of the body of Christ involves acknowledging that the gift one has received is never self-sufficient; it needs to be complemented by the gifts others have (12:4-10). Therefore, the only possible attitude is to honor others (“putting others before yourselves in honor,” 12:10 BBE, see NIV). Christians cannot but “regard others as better than [themselves]” (Phil 2:3) when they contemplate others and view them as bearers of divine gifts or revelations that they lack. Encountering God’s manifestation in others frees believers from the destructive obsession that kept them in bondage.

The same applies to Paul himself. Paul with his superb credentials (see Rom 1:1-6) is tempted, like everyone else, to obsessively believe that the exceptional revelations and gifts that he has received puts him above others and that he is to share these revelations and gifts with others without needing to receive anything from them. He actually falls into this trap when he writes: “For I am longing to see you so that I may share with you some spiritual gift to strengthen you” (1:11). However, he immediately  realizes what he has done and corrects himself: “or rather so that we may be mutually encouraged by each other's faith, both yours and mine” (1:12). Of course! He has to receive something from the Romans. Indeed, he should regard them as better than himself, because they have gifts (charismata) that he lacks; he needs to honor them, that is, to discern the gifts they are bringing to him.

Paul (barely) escapes an obsessive idolatrous attitude by acknowledging that he has much to receive from other Christians. What about his attitude toward Gentile idolaters? We have noted that Paul acknowledges that they have a true revelation (1:18-19). Is this a revelation that he believes he needs to receive from them? In 1:14, Paul signals that he does: “I am a debtor both to Greeks and to barbarians, both to the wise and to the foolish.” This statement refers to a debt that he has incurred by receiving something from these other people (rather than to a general sense of obligation toward them). For Paul, bringing the gospel to the Greeks and to the barbarians involves acknowledging that they have revelations and gifts that he needs to receive from them, even though they might have transformed them into destructive idolatrous obsessions. This is what Paul does in 13:4 by recognizing “God’s servant” in the Roman Emperor cloaked in his destructive imperialistic idolatry. Far from viewing the gospel as the complete and final revelation, for Paul the gospel calls Christians to discern the many revelations and divine gifts that other people have and to be ready to receive these from them.

Paul exhorts the Romans to adopt the same attitude: “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect” (12:2). Far from stepping out of the evil “world” and rejecting it, Christians should contemplate it, discern in it what is from God, affirm what is “good and acceptable and perfect” in it (or “holy and just and good” as Paul says about the Law/Torah, 7:12), and be ready to receive it as a gift from God who is actively Present in “this world.”

            However, Christians should not “conform” themselves to this world; they should not participate in the idolatrous, destructive obsessions of this world. They should  follow the example of Christ, who did not conform to the world in which he was sent and thus appeared to be sinful from the warped (sinful) perspective of that world (he was “in the likeness of sinful flesh according to sin [peri hamartias],” 8:3, au.). By not conforming to and sinning against this world (transgressing the rules of this world), Christian believers “present [their] bodies as a living sacrifice” (12:1) as Christ did (3:25). They will be rejected and persecuted for threatening what this world obsessively views as most sacred. But, when through some manifestations of God they are shown to be truly sent by God (as Christ was shown to be Son of God through his resurrection, 1:4), then (some people from) this world are freed from  bondage to their destructive obsessions.

 

Concluding Contextual Implications

 

For present-day Christians who struggle with their exclusivist attitudes, the implications of Paul’s view of religious obsession are striking. Our knee-jerk reaction is to reject or despise those who have religious views and practices that we perceive as nonsensical, childish, and dangerous because they contradict our convictions. We despise believers of other religions, followers of anti-religious ideologies (atheists or communists), and also Christians of other traditions than ours. As Paul warns us, this knee-jerk reaction is doubly problematic: we condemn ourselves (2:1), because it is a sign that we ourselves have absolutized a partial revelation or gift from God; and we deprive ourselves of the good gifts and revelations that, surprisingly, God offers us through them.

How can we escape this vicious circle? It is neither a matter of theological knowledge (see the first reading) nor a matter of will (see the second reading). It is a matter of convictions. As self-evident truths, convictions have power upon believers either to drive them into an obsessive behavior (idolatrous convictions) or to empower them and free them from such behavior (iconoclastic convictions).

For Paul, the gospel has this iconoclastic power that transforms people through a “renewing of [their] minds” which empowers them to discern what is (and what is not) from God in the world around them (12:2). Contemplating all those around us through the corrective glasses of the gospel, we can recognize that, behind the grime and destructiveness of their obsessive behavior, all these persons have received  good, acceptable, and perfect gifts from God (charismata) that they offer to us. We can see that God is truly at work in their experience, and that they are sent by God. Then, we can honor others (12:10), considering them as better than ourselves (Phil 2:3), that is, as people to whom we are indebted (Rom 1:14) because of the gifts they share with us. Since these other people we honor include Jews, people from other races, from the other sex and of other sexual tendencies, from other cultures, from other economic status—indeed, all people who are somehow different from us—by the very fact of honoring them we are freed for a moment from anti-Semitism, racism, sexism, elitism, colonialism, imperialism, etc. But it is only “for a moment,” because the root of sin (coveting desires) remains within us. As soon as we stop contemplating others around us through the corrective glasses of the gospel, we are back in bondage to our sins. Constant empowerment by ongoing contemplation of the world through the corrective glasses of the gospel is a condition for being rescued from our multi-fold obsessive and destructive bondage by those others who, in their mysterious difference, bring divine gifts to us.

The gospel is also the power of God for salvation because, when we look at this world as through  corrective glasses, it also reveals to us what God condemns (1:18), what in this world is not from God, and thus that part of the world to which we should not conform ourselves (12:2). Contemplating the world around us through the gospel, we are empowered to discern not only obsessive, idolatrous, destructive, abusive, hurtful, and deadly types of behavior, but also their systemic, cultural, economic, social, and political causes. This recognition is a call not to conform to this world and thus to offer ourselves in living sacrifice (12:1), as Christ did. Refusing complicity with the powers of this world—for instance, refusing to live in the warped world of a constant state of emergency—involves putting oneself and those we love at risk. But this sacrifice is not in vain, because it is never the end of story, as the gospel promises. By his resurrection the crucified was shown to be the Son of God through whom the power of God for salvation was manifested among the Jews (1:4, 16). In the same way, when Christian believers offer themselves in sacrifice by not conforming to the evil of this world, they can count on resurrection-like interventions of God that will transform their apparently futile gesture into a manifestation of the power of God through which at least some of the victims of evil will be freed from their bondage.

 

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY

 

Beare, Francis W. “Romans, The Letter to the.” pp. 112-122, vol. 4 in Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible. Nashville: Abingdon, 1962.

Beker, Christiaan J. Triumph of God: The Essence of Paul's Thought. Trans. Loren T. Stuckenbruck. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1990.

Bultmann, Rudolf. Theology of the New Testament, Trans. Kendrick Grobel. New York: Scribner, 1951-1955.

Davies, W. D. Paul and Rabbinic Judaism: Some Rabbinic Elements in Pauline Theology. Philadelphia, Pa.: Fortress Press, 1965.

Dunn, James D.G. Romans. WBC 38A-B. Dallas, Tex.: Word Books, 1988.

Elliott, Neil. Liberating Paul: the Justice of God and the Politics of the Apostle. Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis,  1994.

Fitzmyer Joseph A. Romans: a New Translation with Introduction and Commentary. AB 33. New York: Doubleday, 1993.

Gager, John G. Reinventing Paul. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Grenholm, Cristina, and Daniel Patte. Reading Israel in Romans: Legitimacy and Plausibility of Divergent Interpretations. Harrisburg, Pa.: Trinity Press International, 2000.

Jewett, Robert. Saint Paul Returns to the Movies: Triumph over Shame. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1998.

Käsemann, Ernst. Commentary on Romans. Trans. Geoffrey W. Bromiley. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1980.

Patte, Daniel. Paul's Faith and the Power of the Gospel: Aa Structural Introduction to the Pauline Letters. Philadelphia: Fortress,  1983.

Sanders, E. P. Paul and Palestinian Judaism: A Comparison of Patterns of Religion. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1977.

Schweitzer, Albert. The Mysticism of Paul the Apostle. Trans. William Montgomery. New York: Macmillan, 1931.

Stendahl, Krister. Paul among Jews and Gentiles, and Other Essays. Philadelphia : Fortress Press, 1976.

Stowers, Stanley Kent. A Rereading of Romans: Justice, Jews, and Gentiles. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1994.

Stuhlmacher, Peter. Paul’s Letter to the Romans: A Commentary. Trans. Scott J. Hafemann. (Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1994).

Tamez, Elsa. The Amnesty of Grace: Justification by Faith from a Latin American Perspective<![if !supportNestedAnchors]><![endif]>. Trans. Sharon Ringe. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1993.