We’re beginning a year-long series in Romans at Oceanside Christian Fellowship, and I’m finding it challenging, to say the least. Romans has been quite the lightening rod of late for debates between scholars in Reformed circles (represented by John Piper), on the one hand, and New Perspective folks (preeminently N. T. Wright), on the other, over justification, Romans, and Paul in general. What follows are some ramblings from what is a work in progress (my thinking about the issues!), as I try to sort all of this out to my satisfaction.
Where Romans is concerned, the debate seems to center around whether we should read the text (a) as a somewhat abstract, a-historical treatise addressed to the human condition or (b) as an occasional letter in which Paul underscores the centrality of the Christ event in God’s unfolding drama of salvation-history, in order to address perceived needs (primarily a lack of harmony between Jews & Gentiles) in the church at Rome.
I think both perspectives have much to offer. The historian in me, however, views ‘b,’ above, as the self-evident place to begin. I think Wright’s reading of Romans, for example, makes a whole lot of historical sense, particularly his understanding of ‘the righteousness of God’ as God’s covenant faithfulness.
My impression, moreover, is that Wright makes more room for traditional insights in his reading of Paul than he is often credited with—certainly more room than numbers of Reformed theologians make in their reconstructions for recent findings related to ancient Judaism. For example, you will not find a more robust (read ‘orthodox’) expression of atonement theology than Wright’s treatment of Romans 3:25. He argues persuasively for both expiation (removal of sin) and propitiation (satisfaction of God’s wrath) in his commentary on the passage in the New Interpreter’s Bible.
Now I don’t buy what Wright does with imputation (I find his interpretation of 2 Corinthians 5:21 fascinating but forced), but given his understanding of union with Christ (‘in Christ’), I don’t find Wright doing anything remotely close to propagating ‘another gospel’ with his take on imputation. Frankly, some of the rhetoric on both sides of the debate could be toned down a bit.
With regard to ‘a,’ above (reading Romans as addressed in general terms to the human condition), I am quite convinced that Paul does, indeed, get there in his argument in Romans. This (in part) is what makes Romans such a spiritually powerful and timelessly relevant exposition of the Gospel. And this is where our Reformed brothers have much of value to contribute to the ongoing conversation. But if we begin here and stay here in our reading of Romans, we set ourselves up for the kind of problems that surface in Piper’s recent critique of Wright’s understanding of Paul:
Problem #1 — Piper offers a rather idiosyncratic understanding of ‘righteousness of God’ as God’s ‘unwavering commitment to act for the sake of his glory.’ God certainly does exhibit an unwavering commitment to act for his own glory, but is that actually what Paul means with the phrase ‘righteousness of God’? I think not. Nor do others, since one has to look far and wide for any NT scholar who interprets the phrase this way. Reading ‘the righteousness of God’ as God’s faithfulness to his covenant promises situates the phrase, in contrast, squarely in the ongoing story of God’s relationship with his people, and it makes much better sense (IMO!) of the argument of Romans. In the former case we have theology sans history. In the latter we have salvation history generating a robust picture of God (theology!) acting in history to redeem a people for his own possession.
Problem #2 — Piper collapses ethnic pride under the all-encompassing rubric of human sinfulness and rebellion. Fine, in the abstract, at any rate. Ethnic pride certainly is one very ugly expression of human sin. But to make this move at the gate is potentially to miss completely Paul’s passion to see Jewish and Gentile Christians rise above their ethnic differences and genuinely exhibit in their local church communities their oneness in Christ. Toss into the mix Western individualism (and our emphasis upon Jesus as ‘personal savior’), and many of us will (mis)read Romans as a treatise primarily about ‘me and God,’ rather than as a missiological challenge to pursue peace between ‘us and them.’
Problem #3 — Piper virtually dismisses Second Temple Jewish background as the proper context in which to situate Paul’s writings, suggesting, instead, that the context of Romans itself should be given priority. I find this utterly counterintuitive, and I suspect that few will follow Piper here. Of course the context of Romans should be given priority. But to assume we can read Romans 3:1-8, for example, in the context of the letter, without imposing upon the text our own broader, unarticulated matrices of understanding (e.g., controlling narratives from our theological training, church background, or whatever) is methodologically naive, to say the least. Like it or not, we will inevitably read Romans 3:1-8 in the context of Romans in the context of something else—whether that something else be 21st century neo-Calvinism or 1st century Judaism. I’ll opt for the latter, while remaining appreciative of the often timeless insights and truths of the former.
Last Sunday was our first Sunday in Romans. I challenged our people to read the text primarily asking, What does this passage say about God’s plan for his people? How do I fit into that big picture? and only secondarily asking, What does this passage say about me and my personal relationship with God?
Both kinds of questions are legitimate and, of course, hardly unrelated. And both are absolutely indispensable. But we need to begin our pilgrimage in Romans by asking the questions of the text that Paul is most immediately answering. Then, I think, we’ll begin to find ourselves on the Wright track. 🙂