This semester at the Episcopal Church at Yale we have been studying the book of Romans in our weekly bible study, which we wrapped up for the semester last night.
In this post I want to give a brief overview of what I think the argument of Romans is about and highlight a few ways in which our students have helped me to understand that more clearly.
After giving this overview, in a post coming up soon I am going to present my reading of a particularly controversial few chapters of the book of Romans dealing with the idea of divine election. Stay tuned…
I think there are two major considerations that have to guide any reading of Romans.
The first is a phrase that appears in both the introduction and conclusion of the letter: “the obedience of faith” (1:5; 16:26).
The second is what Paul considers his defining mission, which is to be the Apostle to the Gentiles, the one commissioned by God to reach those beyond the bounds of Israel with the gospel.
With those two things in mind, I think Paul is making an extensive argument in Romans for the full and unconditional inclusion of the Gentiles in the church. The way he makes that argument reveals, I think, Paul’s own wrestling with the relationship of the Jewish community to the new Christian movement.
So for instance, Paul begins his argument by rehearsing a standard Jewish polemic against the sinfulness and idolatry of Gentile culture (1:18ff). The point of rehearsing this polemic, it turns out if we keep reading into chapter 2, is actually to set up a powerful critique of the Jewish critics of his ministry.
The standard Jewish critique claims that the Gentiles should know, merely from their knowledge of God’s creation, enough about God to shun idolatry, but they forsake this knowledge and thus their culture degrades into rampant sinfulness.
What Paul does in chapter 2 of Romans is turn this critique around on his critics: If the Gentiles should know better merely from their knowledge of God’s creation, then what excuse can the people of Israel, who have in addition to that general knowledge the status and privilege of a covenant with God and the revelation of the law, possibly give for their own idolatry and sinfulness?
The law has not saved Israel, Paul concludes. All have sinned and are in need of divine salvation. And since the law cannot produce that salvation, the law must not be the marker of that salvation, either.
It is from this common, lowly starting point between both Jews and Gentiles that Paul then builds the argument for Gentile inclusion.
In essence, the argument is that through Christ a new people has been formed. No longer is the boundary between people those with the law and those without the law but rather those united with Christ and those who are not. The markers of this new community are not circumcision and the keeping of the levitical dietary laws but baptism and a life of faith.
In making this argument, one of the things Paul has to do is explain how faith can serve as an alternative to the law.
He does this first by highlighting Abraham as the example of faith. Though Kierkegaard and Paul will draw their inspiration from two different parts of the Abraham narrative, both come up with a very similar assessment: Faith involves a willingness to take a radical leap into the unknown because God has asked us to. In this way, faith is very much an act of obedience, not merely an intellectual assent: “the obedience of faith.”
Now we get into areas of more nuanced interpretation. There is some debate about whether Paul means to imply that the faith which leads to justification is Christ’s faith or our faith in Christ. Based on some of the observations of our students, I’m going to argue that the answer might be both:
Paul illustrates the effects of faith with two analogies. The first, found in chapter 5 of the letter, compares Christ with Adam. Adam made a choice, a choice which Paul seems to imply forsook the path of faith and ultimately resulted in death. Christ, Paul claims, takes a different path, and by doing so brings life to the many formerly enslaved to sin and death. Here, the “obedience of faith” clearly seems to be the faith of Christ.
However, in the very next chapter Paul then uses the imagery of baptism to argue that those united with Christ must forsake their slavery to sin and becomes slaves to God. A shift has occurred, now the faith under consideration is our own, our faith in Christ leads to our own “obedience of faith.”
One of our students noted that in several places following Paul’s comparison of Christ with Adam in chapter 5 imagery reminiscent of the Garden of Eden story shows up (for instance, 6:21-22, posing the option between death and eternal life just as Adam had in the choice to eat the forbidden fruit or enjoy the benefits of the tree of life). I think this holds a significant part of the key to Paul’s argument. The faith of Christ makes it possible for each of us to face Adam’s choice. Then our own faith must guide our choice.