Beverly Gaventa’s When in Romans— Part One

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B. Gaventa, When in Romans: An Invitation to Linger with the Gospel according to Paul, (Baker, 2016), $22.99, 130 pages of text.

In a preview of coming attractions (because Professor Gaventa is currently working on a commentary on Romans), When in Romans: An Invitation to Linger with the Gospel according to Paul, provides us with a glimpse of the helpful and sometimes provocative ways she reads Romans. While this volume is brief (130 pages of text, counting bibliography) it is by no means slight or superficial. Indeed, it is the distillation of many years of ruminating on Romans, and as the footnotes show, often publishing important scholarly articles on the most studied, debated, and commented on of all Biblical books. This book is written not merely with clarity, but with style and grace and not a little humor as well, and is accessible to a wide range of audiences. It is quite suitable for undergraduate and graduate classes as a point of entry into the labyrinth known as Romans.

Books like this (compare for instance the recent similarly sized book by Larry Hurtado reviewed on this blog), must be assessed on their own terms, taking into account the sort of goals and purposes the book is intended to serve. It is not, for instance, a detailed argument defending a more apocalyptic reading (ala Louis Martyn one of Gaventa’s mentors) of Paul’s Gospel. Nor is it a detailed critique of the ‘faith of Jesus Christ debate’, the ‘righteousness/ justification’ debate, the ‘who is the I in Romans 7’ debate, the ‘is Romans a general tract or a specific discourse’ debate, the what sort of rhetoric is in Romans debate, and so on. Instead, Gaventa is content to lay out what she sees as some the main themes and ideas of Paul’s Gospel as Romans reveals it. Smaller books need to have smaller goals, and this one admirably achieves its goals.

So what do we learn about Paul’s Gospel from this book? Firstly, Gaventa does a splendid job of conveying the complexity of Romans, and indeed of Paul’s Gospel in general. She shows again and again the finesse and twists and turns of Paul’s arguments (for example in Rom. 1-2 where there is so much debate about the interlocutors). Secondly, she right on target in stressing that this document was meant to be read out loud to an audience as a whole, just as an ancient discourse or letter would be, and more importantly one cannot tell the meaning of individual verses and passages without hear the arguments as a whole and seeing what the relationship is between the part and the whole. Words only have meanings in contexts, and when those words are part of an ongoing flow of arguments, like watching a movie, one needs to see where this is all going and how it ends before assessing the meaning of individual bits. Thirdly, Gaventa rightly stresses the particularity of Romans, that it is a word on target for a specific audience at a specific time in Paul’s ministry, and not a generic tract or a capsule summary of Paul’s Gospel. The lack of any detailed discussion of the resurrection of Jesus or the Lord’s Supper should have warned us against taking Romans that way. Fourthly, Gaventa is entirely right in emphasizes Paul’s affirmation of women like Phoebe as deacons and patrons, and women like Junia as apostles. Romans gives the lie to the notion that Paul was some sort of suppressor of women doing ministry, including women serving in leadership roles in ministry.

In the first full chapter, Gaventa discusses Paul’s view of salvation, pointing out the weaknesses of both the overly individualistic and the corporate views of the matter. She has a problem with all ‘linear’ views of salvation (p. 31) preferring the more apocalyptic divine incursion view of L. Martyn and others. She is right that it is incorrect to reduce Paul’s view of salvation either to a transaction between God and the individual or between God and a specific people, say Israel, when in fact salvation involves the whole of creation, not just its human creatures. She is also right that Paul is undermining various sorts of group-think (i.e. they used to be God’s chosen ones, but now we are), by his leveling argument that all have sinned and fallen short of God’s glory and rightly deserve condemnation. Entitlement ideas are skewered at the outset. Everyone is in the category of the ungodly, the sinners and enemies of God, and only God can bring the pacification and reunification. Side note, this little book is blissfully free of the contemporary rhetoric about the imperial cult and how essential it is to read Romans in light of that entity (as time has gone on, I have become less and less enamored with that whole approach to reading Paul). Gaventa draws interesting analogies between the plot of Terrence Malik’s interesting film The Tree of Life, and Romans twists and turns.

Throughout she stresses: “Paul’s understanding of salvation is cosmic. Salvation concerns God’s powerful action in Jesus Christ to reclaim humanity, individual and corporate, from the powers of Sin and Death.” (p. 41). I want to emphasis here that there is a graciousness to Gaventa’s rhetoric— she regularly and respectfully recognizes other points of view than her own and explains patiently why she disagrees with them. This book is not an exercise in polemics, but rather a passionate exposition of her current take on Romans. This is both refreshing and a relief, considering how often polemics about justification and salvation keep flying around in publications especially in the Evangelical sphere.

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