On Rethinking Romans

There is a lot of rethinking going on these days with regards to Paul’s writings, especially centred around the renowned letter of Paul to the church in Rome. The rethinking doesn’t simply centre around the ‘new perspective on Paul’ and justification, but this encompasses both the whole letter and the multiple parts of the whole.

Author’s such as Andrew Perriman are challenging us to read Romans in its first century, city of Rome context, which was prior to what became known as western Christendom. He is asking us to consider what is going on for Paul, a second-temple Jew writing to a Jew-Gentile church in the capital city of a majorly pagan empire. What did it mean then? Not what did it mean to Luther as he stood against the imperial western Christendom of his day, nor even what it means from a ‘new Pauline perspective’.

Perriman’s book is entitled The Future of the People of God: Reading Romans Before and After Western Christendom, which I am currently working my way through at the moment.

Whether one agrees with the new Pauline perspective, with Tom Wright being its most popular, but not the only, proponent, I still appreciate some of the great words and thoughts found in his book Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision. With these words below, he offers a ‘thought experiment’, asking what if the Reformation had started with Ephesians and Colossians, rather than Romans and Galatians:

Suppose we conduct a thought experiment. Suppose we come to Ephesians first, with Colossians close behind, and decide that we will read Romans, Galatians and the rest in the light of them instead of the other way round. What we will find, straight off, is nothing short of a (very Jewish) cosmic soteriology. God’s plan is “to sum up all things in Christ, things in heaven and things on earth” (Ephesians 1:10; compare Colossians 1:15-20). And we will find, as the means to that plan, God’s rescue both of Jews and Gentiles (Ephesians 1:11-12, 13-14) in and through the redemption provided in Christ and by the Spirit, so that the Jew-plus-Gentile church, equally rescued by grace through faith (Ephesians 2:1-10), and now coming together in a single family (Ephesians 2:11-22), will be Christ’s body for the world (Ephesians 1:15-23), the sign to the principalities and powers of the “many-splendored wisdom of God” (Ephesians 3:10). Supposing that had been the vision that gripped the imagination of the Reformers in the sixteenth century; supposing they had had, engraved on their hearts, that close and intimate combination of (a) saving grace accomplishing redemption in the once-for-all-death of the Messiah and putting it into operation through faith, without works and (b) the proleptic unity of all humankind in Christ as the sign of God’s coming reign over the whole world; and supposing they had then, and only then, gone back to Romans and Galatians – the entire history of the Western church, and with it the world, might have been different. No split between Romans 3:28 and Romans 3:29. No marginalization of Romans 9-11. No scrunching of the subtle and important arguments about Jew-plus-Gentile unity in Galatians 3 onto the Procrustean bed of an abstract antithesis between faith and works. No insisting, in either letter, that “the law” was just a “system” that applied to everyone, and that “works of the law” were the moral requirements that encouraged people to earn their salvation by moral effort. In short, the new perspective might have begun then and there. Or perhaps we should say, the new perspective did begin – when Ephesians was written…But why should that apply to conservative readers for whom it is every bit as much Holy Writ as Romans or Galatians? (p44-45)

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