Reading Romans eschatologically
You may or may not have noticed that I have been working my way rather laboriously - and no doubt presumptuously - through an online commentary on Romans. What got me going on this was the growing conviction while writing Re: Mission that we may make better sense of this classic exposition of Paul’s core theology if we read it within the framework of an eschatological narrative that has to do with the realistic, biblically shaped expectations of Jesus and the early communities of disciples regarding their foreseeable future. What if Paul is not setting out timeless, universal principles or an abstract argument about ‘justification by faith’ but directly and with urgency addressing the historical situation of Israel and the emerging communities of Christ-followers in anticipation of the coming wrath of God on the ancient world?
Two chapters in Re: Mission develop this approach, exploring in particular how the two central theological narratives of the renewal of creation and the vindication of the faithful community intersect in Paul’s complex argument. But for my own satisfaction, if for no other reason, I wanted to see whether the argument could be worked out in greater detail. There’s a long way still to go in that regard, but what I have attempted in this post is a sketch of how I think Romans would read if viewed from this perspective.
To my mind, at least, this endeavour has a significant bearing on a number of general issues related to the current development of an emerging theology:
I am very happy to hear what people think about this and would like to invite serious interaction from anyone who thinks it worth developing or refuting this argument, either at this general level or in the details of the commentary.
Outline of the argument of Romans
The coming crisis of eschatological judgment
1. If we take the starting point for Paul’s argument in Romans to be the announcement that the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith (1:17), we should recognize, first, that this good news presupposes bad news. Prior to the revelation of righteousness is the revelation that a day of wrath is coming on the world – a day when the righteous judgment of God will be revealed, when God will render to all according to their works (2:5-6). It will be a day of affliction and anguish for everyone who does evil – for the Jew first, but then also for the Greek. But for those who do good – the Jew first and then the Greek – it will bring glory and honour and peace (2:9-10).
The day of God’s wrath in the Old Testament is not an abstract, metaphysical, supra-historical concept. It is typically a prophetic image for war and material devastation. So, for example, Zephaniah predicts an attack on Jerusalem that will be a ‘day of wrath… of distress and anguish’ (Zeph. 1:15). Quite how Paul envisaged this day of wrath is difficult to know – it is a typology, not an exact description, that he projects on to the dark screen of the future. But I would argue that it had for him, nevertheless, the sort of realistic historical dimensions that could readily find concrete fulfilment in events such as the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple and the eventual collapse of an imperializing paganism. It is this prospect that gave Paul his primary reason for writing his Letter to the Romans: devastating judgment on Israel as the historic people of God, judgment also on an idolatrous and unjust pagan world represented supremely by Rome and its imperial system, and the urgent need arising from this for the community to trust God for its survival.
Arguably we are in an analogous situation today. The church in the West faces not persecution but terminal irrelevance. What does Romans tell us about the reasons for this state of affairs and the grounds for continued hope?
2. Judgment comes upon the Greek-Roman world because people have suppressed the knowledge of the transcendent creator God and have worshipped instead objects in the form of humans, birds, animals, or reptiles. For this reason God has given them over to the uncleanness of sexual immorality and to improper behaviour – the full, colourful spectrum of human wickedness. But the dominant pagan culture will not last forever. As Paul recently warned the Athenians, time is running out; the creator God has ‘fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness’ (Acts 17:31).
I think we are closer to Paul’s meaning in Romans 1:18-2:11, therefore, if we understand this passage as a historically contextualized critique of the particular culture of Greek-Roman paganism. The eschatological judgment that comes upon this culture is likewise historically determined. This raises the possibility that not every culture is amenable to the same critique, so we should consider carefully what it might mean to read contemporary Western society in the light of Paul’s indictment of the ancient world and his conviction that sooner or later paganism would be judged to have failed.
3. Time is running out for an idolatrous, immoral and unjust paganism, but the Jews are no better off, not least because they should have been the benchmark of righteousness in the world. They have the Law of God which forbids idolatry and instructs in righteousness but they do not keep it, and so ‘the name of God because of you is held in contempt among the Gentiles’. They are just as much under the power of sin as the Gentiles; they share in the same humanity. God is therefore fully justified in bringing wrath first on Israel, before the dominant pagan culture is terminated. This is a simple continuation of the preaching of the John the Baptist, Jesus, and Peter in the early chapters of Acts.
The way of survival
1. The Law condemns sinful Israel to destruction. But this creates a fundamental theological problem – perhaps the fundamental theological problem in the New Testament: How does God remain faithful to his promise to Abraham if the historical vehicle of that promise is about to be smashed like a worthless clay vessel?
2. Paul’s answer is that there is an alternative – that the word of God has not in fact failed. God has demonstrated his integrity at this critical moment, apart from the law, beyond the reach of the Law’s power to condemn, through the faithfulness of Jesus, understood not as an abstract spiritual disposition but as a course of action. It is those who trust in this narrow path of suffering and vindication who will be saved from the coming wrath of God. Abraham was declared ‘righteous’ not because he kept the Law but because he trusted in the promise that God would give his family a future as God’s new creation. Likewise, those who now demonstrate this same concrete trust that the God who raised Jesus from the dead will safeguard the future of his people are declared righteous and will inherit the world: they do not come under the condemnation of the Law, they are reconciled with God, they have peace with God and the hope of experiencing the life of the age that will follow the turmoil of eschatological crisis. This is the point of Paul’s quotation of Habakkuk 2:4 in Romans 1:17: it is those who actively and realistically have faith in God who will live – who will survive the protracted suffering and adversity that will accompany the coming wrath of God against his people.
Luther reached back to the argument about justification by faith in order to reform the corrupted Christendom paradigm, in order to re-establish righteousness. Five hundred years later Christendom is beyond reformation. If we reach back to Paul’s argument about justification now, it is to recover the creational dimensions of the calling of Abraham for the purpose of generating a new paradigm. Abraham was declared righteous not merely for the sake of his relationship with God but for the sake of the eventual emergence of a creational microcosm.
3. In the eschatological narrative of judgment and renewal Jesus’ death is seen as a sacrifice for the sins of Israel, analogous or equivalent to the sacrifice performed by the high priest on the day of atonement. Like the servant figure of Isaiah 53 or the Maccabean martyrs, he suffered and was killed because of Israel’s sin and as part of Israel’s punishment. But with that came the marvellous possibility that a reconfigured people would find forgiveness and restoration to wholeness.
4. Paul is deeply troubled by the prospect of judgment on Israel. His heart’s desire and prayer to God for them is that they should be saved from the devastation of war. He believes that God has preserved a remnant of those who have pursued righteousness through faith, which now includes Gentiles, grafted into the cultivated olive tree of Israel. But he despairs of the stubbornness and disobedience of the nation as a whole. Perhaps the inclusion of Gentiles will provoke them to jealousy; perhaps when enough Gentiles have come in, Israel will turn back from its headlong rush towards ruin and be saved. Paul does not yet know the outcome: it is another ten years before war will break out.
The community of hope
1. It is ten years, too, before the emperor Nero will launch a vicious attack on the Christians in Rome – and like the Jewish War this event also casts its grim backward shadow over Paul’s mind. His argument that trust in the story of Jesus’ death and resurrection must also be a realistic participation in it, represented by baptism, is not a piece of formal theologizing. On one level, it means that they have died to sin and live now not according to the law of sin and death (the Law that condemns Israel to destruction) but according to the law of the Spirit and life. This must make a radical difference to how they behave.
2. On another level, the community finds that it is called to walk the same path of suffering that Jesus walked with the same hope of vindication. This is the concrete sense in which the community trusts in the story about Jesus: they suffer with him in order to be glorified with him; they are conformed to his image; they hold the conviction that no enemy can separate them from the love of the God who calls them to pursue this painful course; they present their bodies as living sacrifices; they support and care for each other as a body; they bless those who persecute them; they overcome evil with good.
3. In effect, this is Jesus’ story of the Son of man – the community of disciples in Christ who will suffer with him with the hope of being vindicated and glorified with him at the parousia, when he will defeat his enemies. This is the ‘salvation’ that is drawing near, when the God of peace will crush Satan under their feet. So he urges them to put on Christ, to behave in a Christ-like manner, because it is only by following Jesus on the path of faithful suffering that the communities of his disciples will overcome the opposition of Rome and arrive at vindication and life.
4. The teaching about those who are weak in faith and those who are strong in faith should also be interpreted eschatologically. The issue here is not merely the practical task of persuading Jewish and Gentile believers to get along with each other, even if the problems created by the expulsion of the Jews from Rome in AD 49 and their return following Claudius’ death are somewhere in the background. The issue is framed by the question of whether they will stand or fall when they face the judgment of eschatological crisis, when God judges the ancient world on account of its idolatry, when every knee shall bow and every tongue will give praise to God. As so often in his letters, Paul’s practical teaching has in view the need to instill in his communities a corporate character that will survive the coming fires of persecution.
5. In the last part of his argument Paul explains his own role, with an eye to his imminent journey to Jerusalem with the collection. Christ, he argues, became a servant to the Jews in order to safeguard the promise to Abraham and ensure the future of the people of God; he suffered and died for Israel for the sake of the integrity of the God whose commitment to the world is expressed through determination to maintain a creational microcosm. This demonstration of God’s mercy towardes Israel, however, had the secondary effect of eliciting praise from the Gentiles, who were to discover hope for themselves in the salvation of Israel. Paul believes his role in this eschatological narrative to be the priestly one of ensuring that the offering of the Gentiles in response to what God has done for Israel is acceptable.