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.
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.