Nice title to an article, I suppose. But a couple of weeks ago, I picked up a book I had read a few years back. Well, I’m mainly re-reading the parts I had underlined, which totals a solid chunk of the book.
The Future of the People of God: Reading Romans Before and After Western Christendom by British scholar, Andrew Perriman. When I first read the book, I posted a review, or walk-through, of the book’s content. You can read that here.
If you know and have engaged with the new perspective on Paul, you’ll know the challenges to much of typical evangelical theological talk concerning aspects like justification. However, what Perriman does is take the new Pauline perspective a step (or three) further. He’s like NT Wright or James Dunn on steroids.
Perrimans’ thesis concerning Romans is this. It’s “a stone firmly embedded in the cobbled road of a particular historical narrative” (p153).
Seems simple enough. Except that most people approach Romans, and Scripture, as a very abstract text, a floating-above-actual-time-and-space text. We might proclaim the glories of the grammatical-historical hermeneutic. Yet, we still find it very hard to allow Scripture to be written within a particular historical narrative, without seeing it as an “it’s-written-to-each-and-all text.” Thus, I would agree with this statement as describing Scripture’s intent: Scripture was not written to us but it was written that we might benefit from it.
Each document, scroll, letter, etc, is very earthy, speaking into an historical context of a particular people (many times whatever situation national Israel/Jews found themselves in) or a particular church, etc. It’s not as supra-cultural in its original intent as we might first expect.
Hence the subtitle of the book – Reading Romans Before…Western Christendom. Or better yet, reading Romans in that “particular historical narrative” which Paul and the early church were facing and about to face in the AD 60’s. Reading it before the history of Christendom being established in the west and, for Protestants, before the lens of Martin Luther.
And the implication is that, if we can read it better in it’s true, organic setting, then it will help us as we read it well today in a world in which western Christendom has fallen – meaning Christianity no longer stands as the imperial religion of the west, including America.
I want to share two rather lengthy quotes from the first chapter. One is Perriman’s thesis about Romans and the other is the practical implications for us.
“What I will suggest is that Paul’s argument in Romans in effect presupposes – in a way that is critical for interpretation – a narrative about the concrete existence of the “people of God,” that runs, roughly speaking, from the exile as a paradigmatic judgment on Israel, through the painful experience of subjugation by foreign powers, including the disastrous war of AD 66-73, through a traumatic bifurcation set in motion by Jesus and his followers, through a period of intense conflict with the paganism of the Greco-Roman oikoumené [“Greco-Roman inhabited world”] (more on the scope of this term in chapters 5), to reach a provisional but nonetheless momentous conclusion in a victory over the gods and nations of the old world, represented most clearly by Constantine’s deliverance of the churches from persecution and the subsequent elevation of Christianity to the status of imperial religion by Theodosius. The point is not that Paul foresaw with any great clarity or precision what would be the historical consequences of his “gospel” – and certainly not that he foresaw what lay beyond the horizon of the birth of Christendom. But we will have to reckon with the fact that his argument in Romans about the righteousness of God is geared towards future events that were to have a decisive impact both on the Jew and on the Greek, both on believers and on unbelievers; and that we are likely to distort both his theology and his practical instruction with regards to the life of the community if we lose sight of the concrete political and social reality of these events.” (p3-4)
Not your typical Bible study on Romans, to say the least! But one can at least begin to note Perriman’s aspiration to have the text well-embedded in it’s historical narrative.
And here are some practical thoughts of how this might affect us today (the “Reading Romans…After Western Christendom“). For ease of reading, I break his paragraph up where he makes numbered points.
“I take it as a rough guiding hypothesis, therefore,
1) that the church faces a massive, and insufficiently understood, crisis of identity and purpose on all levels as a consequence of having been unceremoniously and sometimes quite contemptuously sidelined by the dominant culture of the West;
2) that this marginalization is self-evident in Europe, but in the long run is likely to be no less of a challenge for the ostensibly stronger global church;
3) that we will not in the end grasp the seriousness of the problem, or find answers to it, by framing it in terms of polarities internal to the Christendom mindset: between ancient and modern, between divergent Reformation traditions, between mainstream and dissident or conservative or liberal theologies;
4) that we need to address critically the entire legacy of the Christendom phenomenon, from the first rewriting of the biblical narrative in the language and thought-forms of the Greeks, through the long ages of cultural domination and slow decline, to the increasingly desperate endeavors to conserve, commandeer, deconstruct and reinvent that we are confronted with today;
5) that in order to imagine a viable future for the people of God in a rapidly mutating culture we need, in the first place, to reconsider how the New Testament reads as a narrative-historical and theological precursor to the emergence of Christendom; and finally
6) that this hermeneutic is likely to lead both to a more coherent and plausible understanding of Scripture and to a far-reaching reconstruction of the theological identity and practical purpose of the church for the age to come.” (p7-8)
A challenging perspective for our re-reading of Romans, one I’m sure many will disregard. But I believe this book should be brought to the table in our discussions both on Paul and hermeneutics in general. And, it might be worth noting that, on the book’s back cover, New Testament scholar, Craig A. Evans states, among other thoughts: “This is a great book. Highly recommended.”