About six week’s ago, Andrew Perriman (link to his blog) passed along a free copy of his newest work, The Future of the People of God: Reading Romans Before and After Western Christendom. As promised, I now want to post my review of the book. It is rather lengthy, with some extended quotes. But I have done so to give people a better understanding of some of Perriman’s thoughts.
I don’t know why, but for some reason I had the impression that the book would be more ‘devotional’. It’s not too lengthy at 159 pages (maybe even shorter than this review). But Perriman comes through with a thought-provoking and deeply biblical, historical and theological treatise, supporting his work from the Greek of the New Testament and Septuagint, as well as plenty of references to deutero-canonical texts and other such second temple period works. It’s hard to imagine such an academic work could be laid out in a shorter textual framework, but I’ve seen it done before and Perriman no less able to do so.
Many will be aware of the discussions revolving around the new Pauline perspective, especially in its more current rounds of debate between John Piper and N.T. Wright. I will say from the outset that, if people struggle with accepting the new Pauline perspective on justification and other theological terminology embedded in Romans, then I believe those same people will struggle even more with Perriman’s work. Yet, I do believe this work should be considered a worthy voice in the evangelical scholarly world on Pauline studies and, particularly, studies in Romans.
Whereas the new Pauline perspective is a challenge to much of western, reformed teaching on Paul’s letter to the church in Rome, Perriman takes the challenge even further, looking to more firmly situate the book within its historical-narrative context. He believes Romans is:
‘…a stone firmly embedded in the cobbled road of a particular historical narrative.’ (p153)
Of course, I don’t know many people who would disagree with such a statement. But Perriman believes this is what has been over-looked for quite a long time by the western church. He states:
‘The framing historical narrative has been, for the most part, suppressed by the theologies of Christendom because, for all their disagreements, they have operated from the premise that the final interpretive context for New Testament thought has been established in its assimilation to European rationalism. So all that is merely historical may be stripped away to leave the naked, shivering body of theological and devotional truth.’ (p4)
‘…we would do well to disable the universalizing assumptions that we bring to the text and, in the interests of exegesis, re-contextualize ourselves…’ (p9)
Like I said, this is a great challenge to the western, reformed tradition of which most, if not all, of evangelicalism falls under (including me). And its voice summons us to rethink Paul and Romans beyond even the new Pauline perspective.
The first point made is that Paul relied heavily on the words of Habakkuk in his framework for Romans. Thus, we need to grasp the complete message of the prophet, Habakkuk. In Rom 1:17, we are all aware of Paul’s specific quotation of the second phrase of Hab 2:4 – ‘The righteous shall live by faith,’ alternatively translated as, ‘The righteous shall live by their faithfulness.’ But Perriman makes quite clear that much more is going on here than a quoting of a few words from Habakkuk.
If you read Habakkuk’s words, we see the contextual framework that God is going to, first, judge His own people, Israel, and then He will move on to judge the Chaldeans. So Perriman asserts:
‘When Paul asserts in Romans 1:18, therefore, that “the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth,” he is effectively restating in condensed form the argument of Habakkuk, to whom it was revealed from heaven that not only ungodly and unrighteous Israel but also the ungodly, unrighteous, and considerably more powerful pagan aggressor would sooner or later be subjected to the wrath of God…How, then, will the righteous survive? They will survive by virtue of their “faith(fulness)” – their ‘enuma, their pistis.’ (p38-39, italics his)
But what does this mean practically? Perriman, then, challenges that the ‘salvation’ offered ‘to the Jew first and also to the Greek’ is not so much about humans being assured of a personal salvation from sin, but deliverance from the specific wrath that will come within a specific context in history.
‘This “survival” is what Paul means by “salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek” (Rom 1:16). It is a salvation from the wrath of God.’ (p39)
He goes on to state:
‘Habakkuk’s aphorism, however, is not itself the gospel. Paul’s good news is not that when the day of wrath comes, the righteous will live by their faithfulness – or in its attenuated modern form, that a person is saved by believing in Jesus. It is that God has raised his Son Jesus from the dead and has given him authority over the nations. This announcement is the “power of God for salvation,” and in it the “righteousness of God is revealed.”…It is on the basis of the faithfulness of Jesus, who remained obedient even in the face of death and who was raised from the dead, that others may now have the confidence – may believe – that they will not be swept away in the impending flood and storm of God’s wrath against ungodliness and unrighteousness but will survive and find life.’ (p39-40, italics his)
But this ‘day of wrath when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed’ (Rom 2:5) does not speak of a last and final judgment like what we see described in John’s apocalyptic vision in Revelation. Rather, Paul’s is a reference to an actual historical event that is to come. So, for the Jews, that day of wrath culminated in the historical event of the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple in AD 70, and for the pagan Greeks, this judgment-wrath came with the defeat of their gods by the one true God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, which was expressed in the Christianization of the Roman empire by the earlier part of the fourth century (hold on this statement for a moment, as I will come back to it).
So, with regards to the reality of Paul’s words for the the Jews, Perriman remarks:
‘In language that closely foreshadows Paul’s own phraseology, Zephaniah predicts an attack on Jerusalem that will be a “day of wrath…of distress and anguish” (Zeph 1:15; cf. 1:18). This is not a “last day” or “final judgment” in any absolute or suprahistorical sense. English versions of Zephaniah 1:18 typically universalize the “day of the wrath of the Lord” by translating kol-ha’arets as “all the earth.” Both the Hebrews ‘arets and the Greek gē can mean either “earth” or “land,” but here the context clearly disambiguates in favor of “land.” This is the imminent “great day of the Lord,” when he will stretch out his hand “against Judah and against all inhabitants of Jerusalem” (1:4, 14), when those who are humble and seek righteousness may perhaps be preserved (2:2-4; cf Lam 1:12; 2:21-22, 24). (p44)
And for the Greek pagans, he exclaims:
‘What these texts assert, however, is not a final judgment of all humanity but the continuing sovereignty of YHWH, who is king above all gods and who, therefore, will act whenever necessary in history to defend the needy or deliver his people from their enemies. He will judge the Greco-Roman oikoumenē in the same way that he judged and punished the Egyptians for having oppressed Israel (cf. Gen 15:14; Acts 7:7) or the Assyrians and Chaldeans – “according to their deeds and the work of their hands” – for having arrogantly exceeded their remit as agents of God’s wrath against Israel (Isa 10:12, 15; Jer 25:12-14, 17-26; Hab 2:15-16). (p54, italics his)
Perriman acknowledges that recognising the setting up of ‘Christendom’ within the Roman empire during the early 4th century creates problems as a fulfilment of Paul’s words of judgment pronounced on the oikoumenē, for many have debated (and will continue to debate) both whether such an act by Constantine should have ever been sanctioned and the authenticity of such. But, regardless, Perriman sees both of these events (Ad 70 and the setting up of Christendom in the Roman empire) as the actual, historical outworking of God’s judgment that would come on the Jews first and the Greeks as well. And it is those who stand on the faithfulness of Jesus Christ who were to be saved from that wrath to come, to the Jew first in AD 70 and eventually to the Greek. Thus, God was vindicated and shown as the righteous through these acts of judgment.
When it comes to defining both the righteousness of God and justification, Perriman’s descriptions are not that far off from the new Pauline perspective.
‘When Paul speaks of the “righteousness of God,” what he has in mind is not an abstract ethical quality which might, for example, be imputed or transferred to the unrighteous, but divine action at critical moments in the history of his people, in keeping with contextually appropriate commitments, interpreted with reference to paradigmatic biblical narratives, by which the God of Israel is publicly vindicated, shown to be in the right.’ (p73)
‘In Paul’s argument, therefore, justification is in the first place an eschatological category, in this specific sense: a pronouncement is made with regard to a historical community in anticipation of a day of wrath that threatens its very existence. When national Israel stands condemned by the Law to destruction because of persistent disobedience, to be declared righteous or to be justified is to have the hope of escaping that verdict and attaining to the life of the age to come. This is a corporate hope that defines a corporate trajectory, within which individuals, whether Jews or incorporated Gentiles (3:29-30), must find their own personal justification and peace with the Creator God. On this basis they will be preserved when the day of God’s wrath comes – first upon Israel, then upon the pagan world (cf. 5:9)’ (p84, italics his)
But moving on into chapter 5 of Romans, this is truly sacred ground for reformed theology – mainly the doctrine of original sin. And, yes, Perriman challenges that as well, not completely stripping the passage of its universal implications, but continuing to look to deeply root the text in the historical narrative of Paul’s specific message to the church in Rome. Perriman contends in this lengthier quote:
‘Paul continues to speak on behalf of scattered groups of Jews and Gentiles who have responded in similar fashion, and to similar effect, to the extraordinary story that he has told about the God of Israel. We are confident, he says, that we have already been declared righteous in advance of the day of God’s wrath. But in order to arrive at that eventual historical vindication we have to follow Jesus down a narrow and difficult path of suffering [in the midst of the wrath-judgment being displayed to Jews and Greeks]. The argument that follows, through to the end of chapter 5, is intended to provide specific and direct support for his conviction that the community that has been justified proleptically through Christ and that has begun this journey will in the end arrive at a super-abundant life. Romans 5:6-21, therefore, is not a general account of salvation in Christ against the universal backdrop of Adam’s sin; it is a bespoke argument, carefully tailored to meet the requirements of the specific eschatological narrative that is unfolding in the letter. This does not mean that it is not without universal significance: a bespoke suit is not less a suit than one that has been bought off the rack. But if we are to respect the literary integrity of the text, we must give proper recognition to the contingency of the argument.’ (p100, italics his)
This is an argument that I cannot imagine a whole host of reformed evangelicals accepting, or evangelicals in general. I have tried to read Romans 5 apart from an evangelical, reformed, Augustinian perspective and it is amazingly difficult. Such a view is set deep within me (and many of us). But, rather than ‘over-universalizing’ the text of Romans 5, we are confronted with the reality of whether Paul was speaking to the church throughout all ages or to the specific Roman church context. I think we can easily ascertain to whom Perriman believes Paul was speaking.
Since I cannot mention every point Perriman makes in the book, I’ll move on to his discussion revolving around Romans 8 and the renewal of creation.
Here, as many would agree, the resurrection of Jesus Christ actually began the new creation, which means that not only are we, as God’s people, to look forward to a resurrection ourselves, but to the renewal of the whole creation. Interestingly enough, I felt Perriman took more of a middle-ground on Rom 8:19-23.
‘The question, then, is whether in 8:19-23 Paul understands the liberation of the sons of God from their sufferings and the liberation of the whole creation from its slavery to decay to be part of the same final, cosmic event. If he does, then we must either revert to the conventional schema, which pushes the apocalyptic outcome into the remote future and rather makes a mockery of the pervasive sense of urgent expectation that is as apparent in Romans as anywhere else in the New Testament; or we must assume that Paul was mistaken in thinking that the coming judgment would trigger a cataclysm of cosmic proportions. A modern analogy [which he shares in the following paragraph], however, may point towards a reading of Paul’s argument in this passage that permits us to preserve both the historical contingency of the apocalyptic argument and the finality of the hope in a new creation.’ (p122, italics his)
And, so, Perriman believes Paul is telling a two-stage story relevant to the revealing of the glorious sons of God in the midst of suffering and death during the near wrath to come, but also speaking of a full liberation of creation from decay.
With regards to the theme of chapters 9-11 and the summary statement of Paul’s that all Israel will be saved (Rom 11:26), Perriman discusses this in his chapter 11. One point he takes time to emphasise is that the salvation of all Israel could not come until after the pronounced judgment had first come. Remember, judgment on the Jew first, then the Greek. But judgment had to come before salvation would come to all Israel.
But was all Israel saved following the judgment on Israel? Perriman reminds us that the condition is that they ‘do not continue in their unbelief’ (Rom 11:23). Quoting N.T. Wright himself, Perriman argues that a large-scale salvation of national Israel is not necessarily guaranteed, for there is a big IF centred in Rom 11:23. And so:
‘As things turned out, Israel did not repent in the way that Paul hoped following the traumatic events of AD 66-73.’ (p138)
Thus, why we never saw the great grafting of Jews back into the olive tree and the salvation of all Israel.
That should suffice now for a solid overview of Perriman’s thoughts on some of the major passages of Romans, making clear his challenge to read the letter within its historical context of the church in Rome in the middle of the first century AD. Here are some summary words found in the final pages of the The Future of the People of God, provoking us to rethink our approach to the text of Romans, as well as how it affects the message of the church today:
‘We only make things difficult for ourselves if we insist on framing the present task according to the anachronistic narratives. We are not now living the story of the early church, whose “eschatology” was constructed (for the most part) in order to make sense of the two foreseeable horizons of wrath against the Jews and wrath against the Greco-Roman world, and to give vivid expression to the improbable hope that these small communities of refugee Jews and renegade Gentiles would one day inherit the world. Similarly, if we read Romans looking for material to support the conflicting theologies, the consolidated dogmatic positions, the prejudices and pronouncements, the creeds and anathemas of a paradigm that is passing away, we will not only continue to miss the situated argumentative dynamic of the letter; we may fail to grasp the fundamental seriousness of our own situation – that the integrity and rightness and credibility of the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ have been powerfully repudiated, impugned, by our culture, and that it is not at all clear that the story we tell will continue to make sense or that the people of God has a viable future. A narrative-historical, non-idealized reading of Romans teaches us that the question of the righteousness of God is a contingent one and may be revisited under very different circumstances.’ (p155)
And so, the subtitle of the book, Reading Romans Before and After Western Christendom, makes sense. We are quite used to approaching the text with many centuries of theological discourse layered over top, which can end up servering the text from its historical narrative. Hence, Perriman’s thesis that we not over-universalize the text, but rather read it as if it was penned before Christendom, which it was. And, not only that, as we do so, these words of Paul will give us insight into how we can read the text going forward today following the collapse of what was western Christendom, especially that which was deeply rooted in western Europe in decades foregone.
I will have to say that I do appreciate Perriman’s attempt to remind us to read Romans as a first-century text written to a particular church in a particular historical setting. As I said with Romans 5, it is a difficult task to read the text without all the layers of reformed theology that is part of our history. It’s not that we should simply chuck out our history, for we have come from somewhere. But, just as proponents of the new Pauline perspective remind us to understand the text within its historical setting and framework, so does Andrew Perriman in his book, The Future of the People of God.
Though I am benevolent towards the new Pauline perspective, I must reserve full judgment of whether I completely agree with Perriman’s premise, as I still want to finish re-wading through the new Pauline perspective, and also re-engage with Perriman’s work. But for now, I think I would boil down my questions and comments to these:
1. If Romans is not such a ‘universal’ text as we suppose, where do we turn in Scripture to understand and formulate a more universal anthropology, hamartiology (sin), and soteriology? Is it Ephesians and Galatians? Or can we also stick with Romans as a text that speaks to the situation of the whole of humanity?
2. With the two-stage perspective on Rom 8, can we not look to do this with the entire text – allow it to speak into their situation, but also allow it to speak into the overall, universal context?
3. With Rom 11:26, it seems that Paul is making a very matter of fact statement of what will take place – all Israel will be saved. It’s not a specific prophetic utterance, but something that he seems assured of in his apostolic authority. So, what would you do with someone who argued this? – Yes, Israel’s grafting back in is contingent upon faith(fulness). But Paul seems to claim such as inevitable at some point in the future.
4. I would love to see Perriman take this approach with other writings of Paul and the New Testament, say Galatians and Ephesians, two major treatises of Paul. Would he take this same approach in deconstructing some of our inherited theology and look to read the text in its own specific historical setting? I suppose so with something like Galatians, since that is what the new Pauline perspective has done.
For those interested in Perriman’s more complete work on eschatology, I would suggest reading through his The Coming of the Son of Man: New Testament Eschatology for an Emerging Church. It’s sitting by my bed to read soon. For those who look negatively at the ’emerging church’, please don’t let that sway you from engaging with Perriman’s works. Well, that would probably just be an immature response.