The Letter to the Romans represents the Mount Everest of New Testament scholarship. As the Christian church crumbled under the Barbarian invasions, Augustine learned from Romans how one can construct a view of human nature and the state which can survive the breakdown of civilisation.
Yet Romans also gave birth to Augustine’s damnation of the masses of peoples. Luther and Calvin learned from Romans how a church could be structured to allow the gracious lordship of God in Jesus Christ to come to a clearer expression. Yet it led to Calvin’s chilling doctrine of predestination, and the cold inhumanism of Jansenism and Puritanism, as well as to some of the worst extremes in Christianity.
When church and culture were too uncritically combined in Europe and especially in Germany, Karl Barth learned from Romans that God’s lordship embodies a ‘no’! to human pretensions. Its slippery slopes need careful navigating for in the end the letter is about God’s plan for the world and how Paul’s mission among the Gentiles fits into that plan. It was the ‘no’ of the Jews to their Messiah that opened up the possibility for ‘us Gentiles’ to say ‘yes’. Justification by faith makes it possible for both Jews and Gentiles to come to Christ.
The centre of Pauline theology?
In the past Paul’s doctrine of justification by faith separated Protestant and Catholic scholars more than any other theological issue. Protestant scholars singled it out as the central theme in Paul; it is a judicial act through which God, on the basis of Christ’s saving death, grants to the sinner an undeserved gift of right relationship with God. This saving gift is pure grace, received through faith. It is not earned by works of the Law.
Catholic scholars usually regard justification by faith as one of Paul’s themes, related to baptism, life in Christ, new creation, and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. It is one of the many metaphors describing our new Christian existence. Cooperation with God’s grace is part of not emphasising the opposition between justification and all works. Paul singled out the falseness of relying on the works of the Law for salvation. Legalism understands good to come from following certain rules; it is a constant temptation. Christians, Paul argues, are free; faith precedes any works as with Abraham (4:1-25).
Paul lived his life among Jews and Gentiles. He defended the rights of Gentile converts to be full and genuine heirs to the promises of God to Israel. Their rights were based solely on faith in Jesus. Many read Paul as answering this question: on what terms are ‘we’ (or ‘I’) to be saved? But Paul was chiefly concerned about the relation between Jews and Gentiles, the central issue of his time and mission. This comes through strongly in Romans as Paul tries to make clear how his mission fits into God’s total plan and scheme for universal salvation. Paul stresses universal rather than personal salvation.
The basic theme of ‘God’s power saving believers’ is announced in 1:16-17; it is God’s freely given saving action in Christ (righteousness, justification, salvation). The description of humanity on its own is given in 1:18-3:20 and it makes for sorry reading. It first describes the pagan world in its blindness, sin and ignorance. It is the time of the wrath of God, not of God being angry but of leaving humanity in its sin. At 2:1 and 17 the Jewish world is also plunged into the sorry state of the world for, given the responsibility in the Law, they had not lived up to it.
The whole world stood under God’s judgment by 3:20, but then comes the great hinge passage of 3:21. By now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the Law. The effects of that justifying action in and through Christ form the content of the rest of Romans. First is the peace that comes through the fullness of divine blessing (Shalom); second is the grace of actively possessing the divine friendship, and third is the hope of sharing in God’s glory in the already but not yet of God’s time (5:1-11).
As death had reigned through Adam’s sin, so grace reigns through the saving action of Jesus (5:12-21). Chapters 6 to 8 spell out the consequences of our new life in Christ, buried with him and raised through him in our baptism to new life. These chapters form a profound reflection on living out our baptism, with chapter 8 containing more references to the Holy Spirit than any other chapter in the New Testament, some 20 references.
After two chapters on the mystery of Israel’s refusal to accept its messiah (chs.9-11), and the beautiful image of us, Gentiles, as wild olive shoots grafted into the olive tree of Israel, Paul devotes three chapters to the Christian way of life (12-15). The concluding chapter contains many greetings, and we should not miss Phoebe, a deacon, a helper of many and of Paul himself, plus Junia, called an apostle, and an outstanding one among them.
What an interesting challenge the end of Romans, indeed the whole letter, throws up. I hope that it was also noted that apart from Augustine, the greatest contribution to Christian history through Romans has been from Protestant scholars! Isn’t it about time we Catholics were influenced more by the most significant work of the New Testament outside of the gospels?